August 23, 2013

The science of having too little

By Sendhil Mullainathan
Review by
Share this Article:

Scarcity has the ability to change your life. Or at least, it will make you on time for your next meeting.

Defined by the authors, scarcity means having less than you feel you need. Whether it’s time, food, customers or insurance coverage, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that one single impulse underlies everything we do when we feel our resources are scarce. They ask, “What happens to our minds when we feel we have too little, and how does that shape our choices and our behaviors?” They believe that a feeling of scarcity in any part of our lives results in predictable behavior patterns that we can understand and even transcend.

Understanding scarcity’s effect on our thinking has implications for daily living, but also for society’s understanding of poverty. One of the key questions of the book is, “Why do the busy stay busy and the poor stay poor?” The authors explore how deadlines work for and against us, sometimes giving us the nudge to get busy and sometimes causing us to “tunnel” and neglect other important tasks. They explain why we often choose activities that go against our values because we feel a scarcity of time or money, such as forgoing family dinner to work late on a big project.

Mullainathan and Shafir also explore how poverty and scarcity go hand in hand. They argue that penalties such as late fees make it harder for the poor to pay off credit cards, and they discuss why so often those in poverty drop out of the very programs meant to help them. They offer solutions for the poor that bring scarcity into consideration rather than creating more hurdles for people already struggling to run the race.

Mullainathan and Shafir are not interested in dry psychological study. Their book contains plenty of theory, but also stories, examples and illustrations of scarcity at work, which makes it engaging and applicable. Even at 300 pages, it reads quickly and offers plenty of insight on an attitude that can affect every area of our lives—and our society.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book



By Sendhil Mullainathan
Times Books
ISBN 9780805092646

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.