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Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
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Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  5,988 ratings  ·  804 reviews
Audiobook: 8 hrs and 47 mins

A surprising and intriguing examination of how scarcity—and our flawed responses to it—shapes our lives, our society, and our culture

Why do successful people get things done at the last minute? Why does poverty persist? Why do organizations get stuck firefighting? Why do the lonely find it hard to make friends? These questions seem unconnected,
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 3rd 2013 by Times Books (first published 2013)
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Addendum, March 2022: An excellent short version of this book is at The Science of Scarcity: A behavioral economist’s fresh perspectives on poverty at the Harvard Alumni magazine. Thanks to Jeff for recommending it.


Are the poor to blame for their poverty? For their flawed choices?

Are the overweight, struggling with a diet? What about those who complain of being too busy? What about the lonely?

What these have in common is scarcity , something that economists have alw
Kristof Smits
Sep 13, 2013 rated it it was ok
I once heard Sendhil Mullainathan speak at an event in DC, and he was smart and engaging. He's a MacArthur Foundation genius, a Harvard economist, and a TED speaker. He has a wry sense of humor and tells anecdotes from his personal life to make his economics work come alive. And all of that is in this book, written with his long-time collaborator, Eldar Shafir, who's a Princeton psychologist.

Still this book was a bit of a disappointment, possibly because I expected so much. A lot of the conclusi
Leland Beaumont
Jul 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
The mathematics of queuing theory demonstrates that as resource utilization approaches 100%, queue length and delay increase toward infinity. Systems that are not resilient to congestion reach a point of overload where they experience a decrease in carried load even as offered load increases. We experience this when congested highways encounter “volume delays” – fewer cars per hour get through simply because too many are trying to get through.

The authors apply these principles, without the math,
Avi Kalderon
Oct 08, 2013 rated it liked it
While I find the topic very interesting and the science and research put into understanding the scarcity factor intriguing, I think the book was overly long, repetitive and quite frankly circular. Many of the points and ideas made were well described early in the book and yet 70% of it was just regurgitating the same themes. Many books are written in such manner especially when they deal with non-fiction topics and this book is no different. Editors must be gunning for volume and as such authors ...more
Brian Clegg
Sep 17, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 per
Aug 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
This extremely important book takes a close and counter-intuitive look at how the brain behaves when confronted with the lack of something. That something is often money, but it can also be time, or will power, or human connection. In a nutshell, it explains how the brain's default method of creating immediate solutions to urgent problems can very often create a much larger problem down the road.

The reason for this is that urgent problems causes the brain to tunnel, which takes a tremendous amou
Clif Hostetler
Some people say poor people have poor ways, the implication being that they are poor because of their poor ways. These authors maintain that the reverse is true, that people have poor ways because they are poor. They say it can be explained by the psychology of scarcity.

What will suprise many readers is that rich (or non-poor) persons manifest the same behavior attributed to poor people when subjected to situations of scarcity (e.g. lack of time). In other words, the rich often have poor ways to
Jon Fish
Sep 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
The premise of the book is that we have a limited amount of mental bandwidth and we use a bit of that bandwidth each time we address a problem. Poverty, time pressure, and responsibilities all tax our mental bandwidth, even when we are not actively thinking about them. The value of this text is not in highlighting that pressure from outside factors affects us all the time, but rather in explaining the importance of considering bandwidth in designing programs, assigning tasks, etc.

"Scarcity" prov
Jul 16, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, economics
What do you know, having too much to do can cause one to lose focus, become scatterbrained, and experience frustration. And I'll be, working under pressure can lead to increased productivity if not better results.

The authors' anecdotes were amusing. But overall this book was more "duh" than epiphany. I'd hoped to learn something new, but instead I feel like this was a 300+ page exercise in being preached to by a pair of ivory tower dwellers who probably have wasted valuable resources (theirs and
Oct 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Best book I've read recently. This will change the way you think about poverty and other sorts of scarcity. Since I read it, I keep bringing it up in conversation. If you work with anyone that is poor or are involved in social policy whatsoever, you must understand this fascinating research. ...more
Oct 28, 2016 rated it it was ok

When people are preoccupied with a lack of something, they find it harder to function.

There. I said it. That's the book. That's the whole goddamn book.

Here I was, trying to expand my mind with non-fiction only to confirm that there's more truth and joy to be had in fiction. For me, at least. This book (whose authors are fantastic at TED talks, I'm told) says what it needs to say in the first fifteen pages and drags out its basic, basic concept for the rest. The stories and studies mention
Pete Welter
Sep 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
"Scarcity" is one of those books that explains some aspect of the world in a way you hadn't though of before, in an accessible form, and backed by research results. I'd put books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, and The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies in this category. They stretch your expectations and your perspectives.

In this book, scarcity is considered in a variety of forms, including a lac
Proposes that scarcity undermines rationality in consistent but unrecognized ways across human life. The schedule, the diet, the budget, the farm, the attempt to connect. The butter was spread a little thin, but I appreciate that this book attempted to be humane about human failings. I also appreciate that it did not fall into the Malcolm Gladwell smugness about how we’re doing it wrong, without any help on doing it right. Mullainathan and Shafir at least tried, though their suggestions did soun ...more
Mar 25, 2022 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lend
This could have been written in an email.
Wordle took the internet by storm a few months ago and this book perfectly illustrates one of the issues I have with it. Once you have a letter or two the game actually gets harder because all I can come up with are words that have the letter in the wrong place. It gets so frustrating! Stupid brain, stop coming up with words that end in -ed we have already decided that combo does not work!

I was recommending this book to people before I had finished it. It really spoke to me. Towards the end I st
Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite-books
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Lubinka Dimitrova
Lately I seem to often encounter books that focus on a single factor that makes or breaks our lives, physical or mental health, future perspectives etc, be it sleep, ACEs, salt, sugar or whatever else.

This particular one formulates the idea that scarcity of any kind (time, money, calories, sleep) has a huge impact on our bandwidth, or mental capacity. When money is scarce, our thoughts are overwhelmed by our financial struggles, making it hard for us to make better choices. Scarcity becomes a ca
Note the diverse shelves to which I assigned this title. The authors, a Harvard prof/MacArthur genius grant winner and a Princeton prof, studied what happens when we're short on time, money, good relationships and more. Guess what? We lose "bandwidth." If we're overtaxed at work, we can't be the people we want to be to those we care most about. If we're constantly worried about making ends meet and whether our children are going to bed hungry, we "tunnel," able to focus only on short-term fast f ...more
Emma Sea
Feb 08, 2019 marked it as to-read
requested via library
Ryan Bell
May 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Excellent, accessible analysis of the problem of bandwidth tax and the way poverty causes more poverty.

"One prevailing view explains the strong correlation between poverty and failure by saying failure causes poverty. Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure" (155).

Their policy suggestions based on these observations are less inspiring and still enthrall to the same basic assumptions about poverty: that merit-b
Julie Davis
Dec 12, 2017 rated it liked it
Read for my Catholic women's book club.

This has value but would have been much easier to read if it had been written more for a general audience than for those who love diving head-first into studies and statistics. There would have been more value for me in seeing short summaries of the studies which the authors then used to support their main points, instead of having to read pages about each study. The whole study could have been in an appendix. It resulted in a lot of skimming to get the mai
Tara Brabazon
Dec 12, 2013 rated it liked it
This is a very pleasant book to read. The style is evocative and engaging. Not an academic book, it is a bit too much like a Gladwell for my liking. But the case studies are fascinating and do build into a thesis, argument and the capacity for future work.

The book investigates what scarcity - of money, food and time - does to people, organizations and systems. Of most use was the discussion of 'slack' in the system. The incredible value of space, time and 'slack' to create reflection, interpreta
May 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Economics bills itself as 'the study of decisions under scarcity', though much of it is actually about excess: luxury substitution, savings rates, futures markets, conspicuous consumption, and so on. The psychological side - the panic, narrow focus, and sense of doom - was completely absent from my economics classes, but without it you can't really understand poverty, and thus can't value economic growth as the life-saving, mind-saving thing it has been.

Reasons scarcity is bad:
1. Lower consumpt
Sep 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The ideas in this book are, I think, really important. I came across the book through a writing teacher I follow, and the idea of scarcity being a trap - and not one we can just talk ourselves out of by being better, smarter, more disciplined - was mind-opening. The explanation the book lays out on what this means for understanding the cycles of poverty in our society, and how they are absolutely NOT to blame for being unable to dig themselves out - was very compelling.

I did find the book somew
Apr 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
The study of human behavior, always fascinating to me, even when (or especially when? Jeez, I hope not.) presented in this kind of pop culture book format - nothing too technical or complicated, nothing too brain taxing. What we do is usually pretty obvious, but why we do it, that's where it gets interesting. Scarcity (of money, time, or mental bandwidth, among other things) is presented as an alternative explanation to laziness, stupidity, lack of discipline, etc. for poorer performance on ever ...more
Sep 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: metis, arete, non-fiction
Scarcity influences performance in both good and bad ways. It can focus our thinking and our resolve. It forces us to economize and choose. It also takes up our mental bandwidth, often with compounding effects as we borrow and reshuffle. Chronic scarcity also reduces the opportunity for slack, which means any extra draw on time or resources can create unrecoverable backlogs and shortfalls. I found this book interesting and useful for filling a topical gap I haven't seen covered so aptly. There i ...more
Dec 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio
5 stars for relevancy, interest and ability to make economic and psychological theories accessible. 3 stars for construction - I think the authors were going for an early summary and then a more in depth look at the points,but that wasn't always clear and so thematically, it could feel repetitive in some parts.

This book, along with Better Angels Among Us, should be required reading for all legislators, educators, and managers, and certainly anyone working in public policy. It was an easily acces
Rachel Bayles
Feb 19, 2014 rated it liked it
Good concepts imperfectly presented. A bit repetitive, with some of the more promising ideas brought up in the conclusion. The evolutionary role of scarcity probably should have been included more, and the function of abundance should have been given greater play. In general, there is a bit too much of some information, and not quite enough of other types that would have made the arguments more complete.
Mar 31, 2017 rated it it was ok
Rather disappointing and pointlessly repetitive.
As one reviewer has said -
The book's entire thesis can be summarised as: "People make bad decisions when they are resource-constrained, whether the resources in question are money, time, food, or something else." And there you have it! You don't need to read a book that just describes behaviour, but offers no attempt to overcome some of the more negative aspects of this behaviour.
Frank D'hanis junior
Oct 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
One of the best psychology books I have ever read. A work that offers a great deal of insight, both in human motivation and the causes and effect of scarcity. An effective antidote against poisonous tea culpa accounts of the mechanisms of poverty.
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“Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.” 10 likes
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