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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)
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Top Customer Reviews
This truly worthwhile book goes way beyond financial poverty and beyond the superficial effects of not having enough money to pay your bills.
Scarcity comes in many forms - money scarcity, time scarcity, companion scarcity, calorie scarcity, sleep scarcity, and on. Scarcity can make us more effective and less effective. Either way it affects our functioning in profound ways.
When you have a deadline, something happens to your brain that does not happen when you do not. The deadline forces you to choose to complete the report over browsing the internet or playing with your new puppy. The intense focus you have is a function of time scarcity, and ignoring distraction is not a choice.
Self-imposed deadlines come with a different level of choice; you can always decide not to observe self-imposed deadlines in favour of browsing, or the puppy.
In studies of business meetings, Connie Gersick observed that the first half of meetings is diffuse. Much of the conversation strays off the topic. The second half of the meeting nearly always produces more progress as the group realises they are running out of time.
A study of the effects of location was undertaken on a New Haven school situated next to a noisy railway line. It revealed that only one side of the school was affected by the noise. 6th graders whose classes were on the noisy side where academically behind the students on the quiet side - by a full year!
That interruption affects cognitive ability is no surprise, but how severely it does, is shocking.
In a recent study, students were asked to come to the laboratory around lunchtime not having eaten for four hours. Half the group was served lunch, and the other half told to begin the experimental work.
Words were flashed on a screen for one third of a second and then students were asked to identify the word they saw. Was it ‘rake’ or ‘take’. One might expect the hungry students to perform more poorly, but that was not the case. They did as well as the satiated students. However, they did better on words related to food.
In this case of calorie scarcity and in others cases of scarcity, brain functioning was affected at a level beyond conscious awareness.
Even theoretical decision-making is affected by scarcity. People in different economic strata were give this problem to solve: Your mechanic informs you that your car requires a repair that will cost $300 half of which will be covered by your auto insurance. You can still drive the car, but eventually the effect will necessitate a much more expensive repair.
Both those subjects coming from a lower and an upper economic group said they would do the immediate repair. The sensible decision.
However, when the sum involved was changed to $3000 the reactions of the different economic strata was stark. Those in the upper economic groups said they would repair now to avoid the higher cost later. Those in the lower economic groups said they would wait to repair the vehicle.
The salient point is that this was a hypothetical question – it was not their car and not their money. They may not even have owned a car!
Experiencing money scarcity would mean they had monetary issues close to top of mind. Once the experimenters stimulated that part of the brain, the all-too-real non-hypothetical thinking about scarcity came to the fore. Coming up with $ 1,500 was beyond them, the credit card was exhausted.. The minimum payment due is so large they would not be able to meet even that this month. Whom can they borrow from to this time?
A little stimulation raises a racket in their brains, and this racket affected their performance on a hypothetical problem! This is little different to the debilitating effect of a noisy train outside of a classroom.
The better off had no such stimulation, and so they could answer the hypothetical question more reasonably. The poor answered the question unreasonably. One could conclude that they were less intelligent or less capable of rational thought.
The waiter brings you a still water when you asked for a sparkling water. Is he concerned about his mother or his rent at a level that is pre-conscious? What does that do to a student writing an exam? Is it scarcity that is distracting and causing the poor performance and not the lack of intelligence or diligence?
The implications of scarcity go far beyond what I had thought. Therein lies the value of this book. It will make you think about the impact of various types of scarcity in ways you probably have never thought about before.
Readability Light --+-- Serious
Insights High -+--- Low
Practical High -+--- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy
A common criticism of this book is that the authors are frequently making elaborate demonstrations of the obvious. While the observation is fair to some extent, the circular-causation theory of perpetual scarcity presented in the work is intriguing and fills out our understanding self-perpetuating scarcity, espcially with respect to money. I've usually been a little skeptical of the usefulness/relevance of finding of behavioral economics, but I find this work to be an exceptional case; I gladly recommend it.
While the text has a slightly academic tilt at first, as it progresses Mullainathan and Shafir take a Freakencomics twist and creatively explore the world of scarcity. Whether it is the effects of being paid once a year on sugar cane farmers or the consequences of checking your email prior to starting on an unrelated project, the authors explore the unexpected consequences of scarcity. In terms of the former, an annual payment requires the farmer to budget an entire year from harvest point on, something that becomes increasingly taxing as their funds become scarce while checking that email before your child’s bath or personal writing time deteriorates said quality time for even if you don’t respond, your mind becomes taxed by the bandwidth required to ignore the email. In each instance, Mullainathan and Shafir explore situations in a way that moves beyond common sense and in an effort to find novel solutions to eliminate scarcity traps in favor of creating a productive, driven situation. Further, they dive into why, when given the opportunity to create a buffer from said scarcity, people often find themselves in the very same traps as before.