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on 20 September 2013
The authors - economist Mullainathan and psychologist Shafir - make a deceptively simple argument: if you lack something, your mind focusses on that lack both in a productive and an unproductive way.

So, if you lack money, you think about money a lot at the expense of other things you ought to be thinking about, such as your performance at work, or the way you raise your children (reading to them at bedtime, putting in place consistent rules rather than unpredictable ones which are only sporadically enforced) and dressing smartly and preparing for job interviews.

If you lack time, you tend to lurch from one project to another, always behind, never organising yourself and becoming frustrated and possibly ill as a result.

The theory is attractive, because it links us with the rest of mankind. As the authors put it: "This after all is our thesis. If scarcity evokes a unique psychology irrespective of its source, then we are free to treat the varieties of scarcity all the same. If there is a common psychology of scarcity, shouldn't everything we observe about the poor also hold for the busy or for dieters?"...

[...]
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 September 2014
There is no scarcity of books about the brain and psychology and emotion. In fact, the shelves are groaning with them. But here's a psychological take on what you might regard as a problem of economics - and that makes it genuinely fascinating. So it's a shame that it doesn't work better as a book - but this is one of those titles that you will want to read despite that.

The authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir look at the nature of scarcity and, crucially, the effect it has on human performance. You might hear the term and think it's about going hungry - and that is one example of scarcity - but they also look at what happens when money, time and even friends are in short supply. Although they aren't exact analogues, all have related impacts on us as human beings.

By referencing the best available studies (and doing a few of their own), the authors come to some important conclusions. Scarcity isn't all bad. It concentrates the mind - gives us focus. But there is a price to pay for being in that tunnel. It means that other essential aspects of life get ignored. And, most strikingly, what the authors call 'bandwidth' - a combination of cognitive ability and ability to concentrate - is reduced. They call this a 'bandwidth tax'.

So far, so engaging. We aren't just offered the symptoms and diagnosis, but also some attempts to counter this. Pointing out, for instance, that it's better for people to make decisions and learn things when they are going through a good phase than through scarcity. However I have two problems with this as a book. One is that while it's no textbook, it really isn't particularly readable - it takes a really interesting subject and makes it a bit dull. And the other is that there are strong signs that this is really a magazine article, not a book. For page after page the same thing is said in subtly different ways. If I see the word 'bandwidth' again today, I'll scream. The meat of this book could easily fit in 4,000 words.

So, paradoxically, I do urge you to read the book, as the subject is well worth exploring - but I can't promise that you will enjoy the experience.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 December 2013
This is a readable and enjoyable book about behavioural economics. The authors look at scarcity and how it effects those who do not have an abundance of time and/or money - in other words most of us. Looking at human behaviour in different areas of the world it shows how when people are operating in conditions of scarcity they will tend to act with a short term and narrow view, which may not be in their best overall interests.

A shortage of time or money can lead to bad decisons, or no decisons at all; so preoccupied are those suffering the shortage that they are less like to take prescribed medicine, less likely to turn up for classes, less likely to take time for their families. The book concludes with recommendations - for executives to hire a personal assistant to provide slack in the schedule, to make savings planned in advance and set them up to operate automatically, set up direct debits to avoid forgetting payments, complete financial assistance forms for those in financial distress so that their preoccupation doesn't get in the way of seeking the help they need, provide low cost short term loans to keep people away from payday lenders and much more in the same vein.

There is not much that is new here, and whilst enteraining, this will not stimulate many 'Eureka' moments as you read it.
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on 22 March 2014
The authors - an economist and a psychologist senior in their respective fields - set out to prove that scarcity, whether that be a dearth of funds, calories or time, focuses the mind to the extent that it produces positive short-term and often negative long-term results. While this is hardly a jaw-dropping theory, their experiments yield interesting results in the magnitude of focus, or in their speak, how 'scarcity' reduces 'bandwidth' (cognitive ability) causing the sufferer to 'tunnel', such as in the case of someone in debt who takes out a high-interest loan just to pay the rent, or a busy professional who puts off all impending deadlines in favour of the only one due today. Bringing a lack of something top of mind can reduce your abilities at other tasks as much as the deprivation of a night's sleep, and the pair argue cogently that behaviours often attributed to other causes - stress, lack of will, fecklessness - can be laid at the door of our innate subconscious reactions.

Accessible, compelling stuff, and the experiments and anecdotes are fun (I am an 'Angry Blueberries' convert) and if I haven't given it the 5-star treatment it's only because I think their claims for scarcity as a new science, and the universal driver of so many things, may prove to be a little too grand and sweeping. Their suggestions for counterbalancing your tunneling instinct are solid, requiring only a bit of thought, but for anyone aware of what they lack, the preceding chapters on the consequences of this behaviour are enough to nudge the reader towards change.
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on 9 September 2013
This book is a generally fascinating (mostly as it sets out a new way of thinking about some perennial problems based on the notion of scarcity) - but also occasionally mundane (mostly in the later sections dealing with policy solutions to those problems).

The focus of the book derives from a central insight: that maybe all forms of scarcity have something in common (scarcity of money, scarcity of time, scarcity of companionship) and the - apparently strongly evidenced not to say proven - related thought that there is a psychology of scarcity. Scarcity itself, that is to say, gives rise to certain behaviours.

Those behaviours are focussing (useful: we act in a more focussed way with deadlines and better externally imposed harsh deadlines than ones we give ourselves); but on the other hand we suffer from tunnelling (we solve the problem in hand, but often just simply neglect what falls outside the current frame of reference. Then again, under conditions of scarcity, our willpower is impaired and so is our free-floating attention and intellectual ability (our bandwidth is less). Then again, we will borrow from the future to solve the problems of the present - time or cash. And under laboratory conditions, it's better just simply not to be able to borrow (time) at all when completing tasks where time is scarce.

We get very good at trade-offs under scarcity (as we would when packing a small but not a large suitcase). But our attitude towards money is just fundamentally different if we have 'slack' - we may be less economically rational (less likely to sweat the small stuff on a big money transaction) but we are in a position to absorb shocks to the system (financial or time wise) and view the small stuff in itself in a different light. (There's nothing against which we are trading it off.)

The book is a bit less revelatory when it turns to suggesting remedies for the problems of scarcity: good design (courses on money management for those taking out micro loans that actually help them); identifying and managing scarcity in organisations (hospital beds split between elective and emergency care; maxing out the use of restaurant tables), and designing out problems in our everyday lives (being interrupted so our appointments don't run on; hiring good assistants who can provide extra bandwidth; just paying for things automatically so they don't occupy bandwidth; automatic filling out of forms for the poor to avoid the use of bandwidth on transactions).

Still, overall, an interesting new take on some perennial problems.
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on 15 August 2014
This book made me realize how important it is to have savings. Money is very important not because you can buy things with it but because it can help you get a calm mind and not to worry about surviving from day to day. If you have no daily worries then you can concentrate easier on the big picture of your situation.
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on 29 June 2015
GOOD: This book was certainly insightful. The similarities between people whose heads are full with not having enough time, and those whose heads are full with not having enough money are linked strongly and convincingly by this discussion. It gives a new angle on pay day loans, an important problem in the modern west. The general theme of the book is reasonably convincing. I really liked reading about some of the experiments that were discussed, which often gave surprising and counter intuitive results. If you want to learn how strongly the scarcity of something important can affect your mind and life this book is a good insight.

BAD: However, despite being a fresh view on an interesting subject I only finished reading it through stubbornness. By the end, every few paragraphs are introduced and concluded with summaries that feel far too familiar. This book could have been half it's length; the level of repetition became excruciating. Some aspects weren't entirely convincing either. Some details from the references section would have been better placed in the main text. Counter examples, or alternative factors which could explain phenomenon discussed were rarely seen and fairly quickly dismissed. And although the book starts with a promising claim that the psychology of scarcity of all things works in a similar way, the focus was heavily on money and time.
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on 30 November 2013
We have been using this book in my church and people have been deeply impressed by its authors' careful arguments. We are all short of something or other and this book helps us to realise the effect that scarcity has on us. I wish some people in our government would read this book before they do any more blaming of the poor and needy.
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on 29 June 2015
GOOD: This book was certainly insightful. The similarities between people whose heads are full with not having enough time, and those whose heads are full with not having enough money are linked strongly and convincingly by this discussion. It gives a new angle on pay day loans, an important problem in the modern west. The general theme of the book is reasonably convincing. I really liked reading about some of the experiments that were discussed, which often gave surprising and counter intuitive results. If you want to learn how strongly the scarcity of something important can affect your mind and life this book is a good insight.

BAD: However, despite being a fresh view on an interesting subject I only finished reading it through stubbornness. By the end, every few paragraphs are introduced and concluded with summaries that feel extremely familiar. This book could easily have been 25% shorter and said all the same things. Alternative factors which could explain phenomenon discussed were rarely seen and fairly quickly dismissed, which left me feeling unconvinced when some of the weaker arguments came around. And although the book starts with a promising claim that the psychology of scarcity of all things works in a similar way, the focus was heavily on money and time.
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on 2 October 2013
A very interesting and intelligent exposition of reasons and impact of scarcity. The authors have provided both apt anecdotes and proper research reference to explain their observations. A very useful addition to psychology of decision making.
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