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Scarcity

Why Having Too Little Means So Much

By Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
15-minute read
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Scarcity makes the compelling case for the amazing impact that the perceived lack of vital resources – whether time, money or even friendship – has on our lives. It builds its case from fascinating scientific research which reveals how the feeling of scarcity can influence our decision making and even change the way we perceive the world.

  • Behavioral economists and students
  • Policy makers
  • Anyone struggling to get out of a rut, be it poverty, obesity or time management

Sendhil Mullainathn is a professor of economics at Harvard University, and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant.

Eldar Shafir is William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, where he specializes in inference mechanisms, judgement, decision making and other economic behavior.

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Scarcity

Why Having Too Little Means So Much

By Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
Synopsis

Scarcity makes the compelling case for the amazing impact that the perceived lack of vital resources – whether time, money or even friendship – has on our lives. It builds its case from fascinating scientific research which reveals how the feeling of scarcity can influence our decision making and even change the way we perceive the world.

Key idea 1 of 9

Many problems in society are linked by the concept of scarcity.

What do the tragedy of global poverty and the difficulties of sticking to yet another fad diet have in common? At first there doesn’t seem to be any link; in fact, they seem to be contradictory in every way.

Yet upon closer inspection we discover that they are both consequences of the same malaise: scarcity.

In fact, scarcity, defined as “having less than you feel you need,” is the link that connects many of the seemingly unrelated problems we face every day. This isn’t physical scarcity, as in the literal unavailability of objects, but rather the feeling of not having enough, whether it’s time, money, food or even something more abstract like education.

Imagine a world-class chef who, having spent her entire life perfecting her craft, must create her best dish in less than two hours for a TV show, under intense time pressure. Here, time is scarce, and she doesn’t feel she has enough minutes for what she needs to do.

The chef’s feeling of scarcity is essentially the same as that of the dieter who’s struggling to eat less than he’s accustomed to. To him, scarcity is the amount of calories he feels he’s missing from his meals.

However, to a certain degree we can control our experience of scarcity by using something called a critical safety valve. For example, if you’ve overcommitted to work projects, your safety valve might mean missing a few deadlines. Or if you’re on a diet, you can take a break and have a slice of pizza. In this way, you are choosing how much scarcity you have to face.

But not everything has a critical safety valve. If you’re poor, you can’t just decide to be rich for a day to alleviate the pressure. This lack of freedom to manipulate your situation means that poverty represents a particularly extreme form of scarcity. Regardless, the actual experience of scarcity is the same.

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