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Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much Hardcover – September 3, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The struggle for insufficient resources—time, money, food, companionship—concentrates the mind for better and, mostly, worse, according to this revelatory treatise on the psychology of scarcity. Harvard economist Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Shafir examine how scarcity in many forms, from poverty and scheduling pressures to dieters' food cravings and loneliness—a kind of social scarcity —force the brain to focus on alleviating pressing shortages and thus reduce the mental bandwidth available to address other needs, plan ahead, exert self-control, and solve problems. The result of perpetual scarcity, they contend, is a life fixated on agonizing trade-offs, crises, and preoccupations that impose persistent cognitive deficits—in poor people they lower mental performance as much as going a night without sleep—and reinforce self-defeating actions. The authors support their lucid, accessible argument with a raft of intriguing research in psychology and behavioral economics (sample study: We recruited Princeton undergraduates to play Family Feud in a controlled setting ) and apply it to surprising nudges that remedy everything from hospital overcrowding to financial ignorance. Mullainaithan and Shafir present an insightful, humane alternative to character-based accounts of dysfunctional behavior, one that shifts the spotlight from personal failings to the involuntary psychic disabilities that chronic scarcity inflicts on everyone. 8 illus. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (Sept.)
“Extraordinarily illuminating. . . . Mullainathan and Shafir have made an important, novel, and immensely creative contribution.” ―Cass R. Sunstein, The New York Review of Books
“Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir offer groundbreaking insights into, among other themes, the effects of poverty on cognition and our ability to make choices about our lives.” ―Samantha Power, The Wall Street Journal
“Scarcity is a captivating book, overflowing with new ideas, fantastic stories, and simple suggestions that just might change the way you live.” ―Steven D. Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics
“Compelling, important … Scarcity is likely to change how you view both entrenched poverty and your own ability -- or inability --to get as much done as you'd like… It's a handy guide for those of us looking to better understand our inability to ever climb out of the holes we dig ourselves, whether related to money, relationships, or time.” ―The Boston Globe
“Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir are stars in their respective disciplines, and the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. Together they manage to merge scientific rigor and a wry view of the human predicament. Their project has a unique feel to it: it is the finest combination of heart and head that I have seen in our field.” ―Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow
“The scarcity phenomenon is good news because to a certain extent, we can design our way around it...What's particularly useful about the idea of scarcity is that it is overarching; ease that burden, and people will be better able to deal with all the rest.” ―The New York Times
“Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show how the logic of scarcity applies to rich and poor, educated and illiterate, Asian, Western, Hispanic, and African cultures alike. They offer insights that can help us change our individual behavior and that open up an entire new landscape of public policy solutions. A breathtaking achievement!” ―Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor emerita, Princeton University, and president and CEO of the New America Foundation
“A key point of Mullainathan and Shafir's work is that we may all experience different kinds of scarcity, accompanied by the same hyper-narrow focus and costs in lost attention elsewhere.” ―The Atlantic
“Here is a winning recipe. Take a behavioral economist and a cognitive psychologist, each a prominent leader in his field, and let their creative minds commingle. What you get is a highly original and easily readable book that is full of intriguing insights. What does a single mom trying to make partner at a major law firm have in common with a peasant who spends half her income on interest payments? The answer is scarcity. Read this book to learn the surprising ways in which scarcity affects us all.” ―Richard H. Thaler, University of Chicago, coauthor of Nudge
“[Mullainathan and Shafir] examine how having too little of something first inspires focused bursts of creativity and productivity--consider how looming deadlines can motivate us. But a long-term dearth can result in fixations that hinder our decision-making...Less is not necessarily more.” ―Discover Magazine
“With a smooth blend of stories and studies, Scarcity reveals how the feeling of having less than we need can narrow our vision and distort our judgment. This is a book with huge implications for both personal development and public policy.” ―Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell Is Human
“Scarcity is certain to gain popularity and generate discussion because it hits home. Everyone has experienced scarcity, and the research cited will likely alter every reader's worldview.” ―American Scientist's "Scientists' Bookshelf"
“Insightful, eloquent, and utterly original, Scarcity is the book you can't get enough of. It is essential reading for those who don't have the time for essential reading.” ―Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness
“The book's unified theory of the scarcity mentality is novel in its scope and ambition.” ―The Economist
“A pacey dissection of a potentially life-changing subject.” ―Time Out London
“A succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics.” ―New Statesman
“One of the most significant economics books of the year.” ―Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
“The struggle for insufficient resources--time, money, food, companionship--concentrates the mind for better and, mostly, worse, according to this revelatory treatise on the psychology of scarcity . . . The authors support their lucid, accessible argument with a raft of intriguing research . . . and apply it to surprising nudges that remedy everything from hospital overcrowding to financial ignorance . . . Insightful.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Top customer reviews
Scarcity- Why Having too little means so much, is split into 3 parts. The first part is called The Scarcity Mindset. This chapter sets the stage by familiarizing the reader with themselves by providing examples based around looming deadlines. The authors remind the reader how they can focus on the task at hand with greater efficiency with a looming deadline compared to one that is far in the future. At the same time though the focus that comes with a due date comes at the expense of peripheral awareness and we tend to tunnel. The authors give examples of how when tunneling we ignore most things not immediately relevent to the task at hand to our own peril (the authors use the examples of fireman fatality arising from not fastening their seatbelts, as that is outside one's tunnel). The authors also introduce the idea of bandwith from a psychological standpoint. By this they mean how much mental capacity we can run and the spillovers from over taxing ourselves in terms of efficiency and productivity.
The authors get into the next session by going one step further in exploring the repurcussions of over taxed bandwith. The authors introduce the idea of scarcity begets scarcity as one's efficiency is lowered in such a state of scarce time which ends up perpetuating the trap. They use commonsense examples like packing a suitcase and the differences in attitude when packing a large suitcase and a small one. The concept of slack is introduced and the large asymmetry that arises due to having slack. They discuss the irrational economics of borrowing at high rates from predatorial lenders but the inevitability of it when faced with having no economic slack. The cases used create natural sympathy from the readers as the examples are easy to associate with. The authors discuss the scarcity trap and the reduced efficiency while out of bandwith perpetuating the scarcity trap. The authors also discuss poverty through this lense and articulate how poverty is self-sustaining through reduced individual efficiency and overtaxed bandwith.
The authors then discuss policy responses to try to prevent scarcity traps. They focus on ideas for trying to stop people from overtaxing their bandwith. Occasionally the solutions come in unintuitive forms like forcing slack to allow for the unexpected on a structural basis. By this they describe a solution to perpetually full hospital calendars was found by leaving operating rooms unconditionally open for emergeny use only to keep scheduled operations on time thus reducing the need for constant rescheduling and delays. Such a simple solution of forcing slack for resource usage increased overall efficiency by over 10% despite from a scheduling perspective appear to force more surgeries into the future. The idea the authors keep on reinforcing is that the lost efficiency on low bandwith work can be less productive in aggregate than more targeted work on higher bandwith (ie 10 ours of working unproductively is less valuable than 8 on high efficiency).
Scarcity discusses the important reality that we act inconsistenty and that inconsistency is often a function of our mental state which can broadly be put into a state of scarcity or abundance. Each of these states creates different behavioural outcomes of complacense for abundance and low efficiency for scarcity. Recognizing this behavioural fact should increase our sympathy for the overworked and need for regiment for those with excess. Policy responses to activities surrounding scarcity should appreciate the psychological aspects of what scarcity does to ones mental state rather than purely on the scarce good itself. I think the book is articulate in clear in presenting the psychology of scarcity. It is not particularly revolutionary and most of us already know this, but by introducing it in an economic sense it creates a new avenue for work and policy focus.
This is a book which everybody in management, the professions, social services, aid organisations etc. should read, digest and act on as a matter of integrity.
One example among many: A school in which those classes on the right side were consistently a year behind at the end of the six years; WHY? one side fronted onto a park and the other had a rail track used 3 - 4 times an hour. When double glazing was installed the difference in attainment vanished, yet the graduates from the right side would have been, for no fault of their own, confined to low class, low pay jobs and blamed for their poor achievements.
This is a book, which if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, has the potential to radically change the world.
It illustrates the previously considered intangible costs of being poor and really digs in. It explains the mentality of the individual and how 'tunneling' can create a measurable decrease in IQ, and how it's an uncontrollable biological response. It also discusses the lack of slack and how it makes any system susceptible to shocks.
The insights are so general that it's even easy to apply to your personal life but certainly could be used to make policy more effective.
For me, this took a well-known value of scholarship, "peace of mind", and makes it quantifiable. It demonstrates several fascinating tests that can be used to measure this. It would take a lot of work, but I think it would be even reasonable to say that you could test someone when you first meet them and test them again a few months after acceptance and get a metric of effectiveness.