Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Mullainathan, Sendhil

Book - 2013
Average Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.
An examination of how scarcity--and our flawed responses to it--shapes our lives, our society, and our culture.

Publisher: New York :, Times Books, Henry Holt and Company,, 2013
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780805092646
Branch Call Number: 338.521 M
Characteristics: 288 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Additional Contributors: Shafir, Eldar


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Thursday, February 13.

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Jul 30, 2014
  • JCLChrisK rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Chances are, you've experienced scarcity. Not just a moment of lack, but a lengthy, chronic situation of less time, money, caloric intake (either starvation or dieting), or human contact (i.e. loneliness) than you need. If you're like most people, when you found yourself in that situation you found yourself feeling completely wrapped up in your condition of scarcity--your thoughts dominated by your lack of time, money, food, or contact and your inability to ever get enough or break the cycle of lack.

The reason chances are good that you can relate is because these are common situations--even those who've never struggled financially are likely to have struggled with time, weight, or contact at some point--and they all share a common mindset. The authors have gathered a wealth of evidence--both their own and others'--to show that, regardless of type, there is a particular psychology to scarcity. The successful, wealthy business person who is always harried for time deals with the same thing as the minimum wage worker struggling to make ends meet, just for a different reason. A person dealing with a scarce resource in the present moment finds so much of his or her mental attention occupied by that scarcity that less brainpower is left for everything else--he or she will experience a significant drop in operational intelligence and impulse control, and will experience a self-perpetuating dynamic that creates a scarcity trap (as the large, middle section of the book is titled, "Scarcity Creates Scarcity").

This is not to say that scarcity is determinant and people have no ability to alter their situations, but it is a very important acknowledgment that scarcity makes things more difficult. This is a psychological reality that effects everyone--some people may have more willpower than others, but everyone experiences a drop in their willpower when in a state of scarcity, not in comparison to others, but in comparison to their own capacities when not dealing with scarcity. Study after study, across numerous fields, indicates it is so, the drop in willpower, operational intelligence, and helpful reactions. Scarcity, whatever its source, makes things harder for you, whoever you are. You still have the power to change your situation, but doing so will be a bigger challenge for you than for those who have no scarcity.

The simple awareness and acknowledgment of this fact as a reality is hugely important, and I believe the book matters immensely simply for that. In addition, the third, final section offers strategies for countering the ways scarcity impacts us, both personal ideas for individuals and policy ideas for companies and government programs. The authors admit at the end of their introduction that they are exploring new territory and offer the book as a launching pad not a conclusion, so there is ample room for more discovery, reflection, and reaction; nevertheless, I find this a highly valuable book.

Mar 16, 2014
  • ser_library rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

fascinating, applicable and somewhat commonsensical (ie short and frequent deadlines). a bit repetitive, but the anecdotes are excellent. the recommendations for payday loan companies should be adopted. a good read.

Nov 24, 2013
  • ksoles rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

In "Scarcity," economist Mullainathan and psychologist Shafir engagingly approach the pressing problem of poverty. They examine different forms of scarcity: financial, social, temporal and nutritional, reporting on psychological research and case studies to develop their thesis that one can approach scarcity from a cognitive standpoint.

The authors' continuous discussion of the economics of scarcity eventually grows repetitive and tedious; explanations of terms like "tunnelling," confined focus that excludes broader considerations, and "bandwidth tax," where poverty taxes the mind so as to reduce intelligence and control, weigh down the narrative. Nevertheless, the authors stress that their approach to scarcity differs from that of economists. And when they do depart from the school of economics, their writing intrigues. They examine the mechanics of payday loans and show how market vendors in India finance inventory. They discuss how habits of thought constrain choice and argue that managing plenty matters as much as managing scarcity since scarcity often begins with abundance. Indeed, "the crunch just before a deadline often originates with ample time used ineffectively in the weeks preceding it."


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