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Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives Paperback – November 4, 2014
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“Extraordinarily illuminating...Mullainathan and Shafir have made an important, novel, and immensely creative contribution.” ―Cass R. Sunstein, The New York Review of Books
“Compelling, important...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
“[Scarcity offers] groundbreaking insights into...the effects of poverty on cognition and our ability to make choices about our lives.” ―Samantha Power, The Wall Street Journal
“This is a book to read--but not while you are watching something else at the same time.” ―Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google and coauthor of The New Digital Age
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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)
About the Author
Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and conducts research on development economics, behavioral economics, and corporate finance. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Eldar Shafir is the William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He conducts research in cognitive science, judgment and decision-making, and behavioral economics. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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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.