Book Review of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

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This Book Review of Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir is brought to you from Ashleigh Womack from the Titans of Investing.

Genre: Economics
Author: Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
Title: Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much (Buy the Book)


Mullainathan and Shafir define  scarcity as “having less than  you feel you need” (4). There  are two forms of scarcity: physical and psychological. Physical scarcity is essentially economics- how we achieve our unlimited desires with limited means.

Psychological scarcity is the mindset that a human experiences when faced with constraints on finite resources. Mullainathan and Shafir focus on the psychological effects of scarcity on people that are poor in time and poor in money.

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The feeling of scarcity is a double-edged sword. The focus dividend is a positive effect that increases your efficiency and attentiveness to the task at hand. The bandwidth tax, the tunneling tax, and myopic behavior are some of the negative effects that take away from your mental capacity and cause you to make less rational decisions.

The purpose of Scarcity is  to make  the reader  aware of human’s  vulnerability to scarcity  and educate the reader on  how to make life and organizations  â€œscarcity-proof.”

In this Titans brief, you will find Mullainathan and  Shafir’s answers to these questions:

  • What is scarcity and how does it shape our choices and behaviors?
  • What is the focus dividend and how does it help in a time of scarcity?
  • What is the bandwidth tax and tunneling tax and how do they impede rational behavior?
  • What is a scarcity trap and how can you get out of it?
  • What is the importance of slack and abundance?

The  brief  also provides  Mullainathan and  Shafir’s views on:

  • Borrowing
  • Poverty


What happens to our minds when we feel we have too little, and how does that shape our choices and behaviors? This is the ambiguous question that Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir attempt to answer in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan  and Shafir first  define the concept  of scarcity as “having  less than you feel you  need” (4). The study of  managing physical scarcity is ubiquitous – it’s  called economics. Economics focuses on satisfying our unlimited desires with our limited means.

The study of the psychology of scarcity, on the other hand, is not commonplace.

The psychology of scarcity encompasses a mindset that a human experiences when faced with varying constraints on scarce resources such as time or money.

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So what happens  when one experiences  scarcity? Let’s say that  you have a project with a tight deadline  coming up on Wednesday. It is Sunday night  and you haven’t done much in the way of preparing.

You are experiencing time scarcity, and these are the psychological elements that you likely experience:

  • Increased efficiency and attentiveness to the task at hand
  • Decreased carelessness or error

What about the other parts of your life though? For the next 48 hours, you will likely have less “mind”  to give to them. Whether that entails forgetting to pay a bill or missing a dance recital, you will probably  appear to be “not all there” to others.

Mullainathan and Shafir explore the psychological ramifications of scarcity, specifically focusing on those who are scarce in money and those who are scarce in time. They attempt to discover why we act the way we do and how we can use this knowledge to rid ourselves of the irrational behavior that comes while feeling that you have less than you need.

The Scarcity Mindset

The Focus Dividend

Increased efficiency and attentiveness to the task at hand, and decreased carelessness or error are two components of the positive outcome of scarcity, termed the focus dividend. When we face time pressure, our mind focuses and  tries to “condense previous efforts into immediate  output” (20), inadvertently making us more efficient and able to finish the project in the knick of time.

The Bandwidth Tax While we may be more productive in one parameter of our life, we are losing bandwidth to give to the rest of life.

Bandwidth is our mental capacity, and it is has two components: cognitive capacity and executive control. Mullainathan  and Shafir define  cognitive capacity as  “the psychological mechanisms that underlie our ability to solve problems, retain information, [and] engage  in logical  reasoning” (47). Cognitive capacity’s  largest component is fluid intelligence, our  “ability  to think and  reason abstractly  and solve problems  independent of any specific   learning or experience” (47).

Executive  control is the component that “underlies  our ability to manage our cognitive activities, including planning, attention, initiating and inhibiting actions, and  controlling impulses” (47). The largest executive control component is self-control. Scarcity reduces both our cognitive capacity and our executive control, and thus makes us victims of the bandwidth tax.

Historically, researchers believed cognitive capacity was a fixed entity. However, Mullainathan and  Shafir’s research has produced an interesting perspective: cognitive capacity might change with circumstances.

To  better  understand  the bandwidth  tax’s effect on  cognitive capacity,  Mullainathan and Shafir   conducted an experiment in a New Jersey mall.

Each subject self-reported their household income and was subsequently given a brief hypothetical situation to read and then immediately asked  to solve a series of Raven’s Matrices problems. There were two hypothetical situations and two groups, each consisting of the same number of affluent and financially distressed people (based on self-reported income).

Both hypothetical situations described unexpected car repairs. They rhetorically asked the individual how they would handle the repair (if they would actually fix the car or just hope that it lasted a little bit longer) and if it would be a financially difficult decision for them to make. The difference between the hypothetical situations was that the first was only a $300 repair, while the second was a $3,000 repair.

In the first group, where the car repair was $300, the affluent and the financially distressed looked  equally intelligent based on their performance on the Raven’s Matrices problems.

The second group, where the car repair was $3,000, however, produced interesting results. The affluent performed at the same level as the first group, but the financially distressed performed significantly worse.

Mullainathan  and Shafir concluded  â€œthe same person has fewer  IQ points when [he or] she is   preoccupied by scarcity than when [he  or] she is not” (52). In this situation, the financially distressed performed worse because they were using a portion of their bandwidth elsewhere.

The Tunneling Tax

So far, in a time of scarcity we experience the positive effect of the focus dividend countered by a reduction in our bandwidth. To add to the negative side effects, we also start tunneling. Tunneling  is when we “focus  single mindedly on managing  the scarcity at hand” (29).

Leading to goal inhibition, tunneling is generally unavoidable and out of our control.

Goal inhibition is when we can only focus on one item that is important and it decreases our ability to think about other important items. Also, our ability to perceive cost-benefit relationships declines. When we tunnel and it hurts us, we become a tunneling tax victim.

A company, falling victim to tunneling tax, slashes their marketing budget in a weak economy: “In  lean times,  many small businesses  make the mistake of cutting  their marketing budget to the  bone or even eliminating it entirely.

But lean times are exactly the times your small business needs  marketing…you need to help [consumers] find your products and services” (37).

In poor countries, many farmers are also tunneling tax victims.

Researchers cannot answer why poor  farmers don’t purchase crop insurance, as the proceeds from the crops harvested each year   are typically the only source of income to their family. When asked why they do not buy insurance, the farmers respond that they cannot afford it. In reality  “they cannot afford to not be insured” (36).

Marketing and insurance expenses are two examples of costs that fall inside the tunnel while associated benefits fall outside of the tunnel. During scarcity, we are unable to appreciate cost- benefit relationships and end up hurt by the tunneling tax.

Scarcity makes us less intelligent and more impulsive. Life is fundamentally harder under scarcity. What’s worse is that scarcity generally creates more scarcity.

Scarcity Creates Scarcity

Slack and Abundance

Imagine you are packing a suitcase for a weeklong trip. If you are packing a big suitcase, you will pack more carelessly than someone packing a small suitcase. In your big suitcase, you have more room for error.

You may even throw in a couple of extra outfits to give yourself freedom of  choice each day. If you’re packing a small suitcase, you’re aware of the limited space you have and will likely pack succinctly and efficiently.

Scarcity is the small suitcase.

Scarcity requires trade-off thinking. Having one item in the small suitcase requires not having something else in the suitcase.

Abundance is the large suitcase.

We are in a period of abundance when we have slack. Slack is “what  allows us to feel  there is no trade-off”  (73). When we have slack,  we don’t contemplate the utility of an item, and we are inherently inefficient and wasteful. When we have slack in time, we wake up, lounge around, and wonder where the day went.

When we have slack in money, we have the luxury of not having to choose – we can have both! Mistakes do not come with  real consequences and slack provides “room to fail” (82). In periods of slack and abundance, we also have no intuitive way to value things.

However, in order to diminish our vulnerability, shouldn’t the poor in money know the value of a dollar and the poor in time know   the value of an hour?

Behavioral economics suggest that money is valued in relative terms. Scarcity overturns this notion. Mullainathan and Shafir recreated a classic experiment originally done by economist Richard Thaler. In this study, subjects were broken into two groups and asked to read a hypothetical situation and respond.

There were two hypothetical situations about a day at the beach: you and your friend were thirsty, so your friend offers to go get drinks at the local store (or in the second hypothetical situation – get drinks at the resort convenience store) and asks you to set a price that you would be willing to pay.

The affluent behaved irrationally and said they would pay different prices – lower for the local store drink and higher for the resort convenience store drink. The financially distressed, on the other hand, behaved quite logically.

They gave more consistent answers between the two purchasing locations. As it turns out, the poor are experts in the value of a dollar. This “expertise”  can be attributed to their scarcity in money. Owning a smaller suitcase, the financially distressed constantly practice trade-off thinking.

Borrowing and Myopia

“Scarcity  today creates  more scarcity tomorrow”  (108). Why? Because we  borrow. We borrow because  we tunnel. If you’ll recall,  when we tunnel we only focus on  our most immediate needs and have a hard time factoring cost-benefit relationships into our decision-making.

For the poor in money, this means that loans are very attractive. For the poor in time, this means putting off a less  imminent activity is very attractive. Tomorrow’s scarcity is abstract because you don’t feel it yet.

At some point down the road, you will need to find the time or the money. It will eventually “bleed you by a thousand  little cuts” (117). Tending to the future also requires bandwidth, which is taxed by your current scarcity.

Mullainathan and Shafir constructed an experiment to further study the relationship between scarcity and borrowing.

The experiment was set up to simulate Family Feud. Family Feud is an American  TV game show in which contestants  are asked to “name items that belong to categories  like ‘Things Barbie could auction off if she needed money  fast’” (111).

Prior to the show, one hundred Americans are asked to respond with their favorite answer to each category. The  goal of the participants is to guess America’s favorite answer.

Each  contestant  in Mullainathan  and Shafir’s simulation  played a series of rounds  in a fixed amount of time  depending on their randomly assigned  â€œwealth.” The “rich” were given more time per round and the “poor” were given less time per round. Each team’s  accumulated points at the end of the round were turned into dollars.

In addition, teams had the option to borrow time if they so desired.

Each second they borrowed in a round cost them two seconds from their total time. However, if they had time left over at the end  of a round, they could “save” the time and deposit it back into their total time allotment.

The poor “made 50 percent more guesses per second and earned more per guess” while  the rich, who were given three times as long to play (thus should have earned three times as many points) “only earned 1.5 times as much as the poor” (112-113). The poor did well because they experienced the focus dividend. The poor also exhibited myopic behavior caused by tunneling, and as a result borrowed more than the rich.

In a separate trial,  the option to borrow  was taken away. In this  situation, the poor “earned 60   percent more points” and the rich  remained unaffected (113).

These  results  further support  Mullainathan and Shafir’s  conclusion that “scarcity captures us…and  yields a tunneling tax and makes us act myopic”  (120).

The poor behave myopically by borrowing  in a time  of scarcity,  and end up performing  worse than if they wouldn’t  have borrowed at all. Mullainathan and Shafir believe that people, facing no scarcity, would not naturally behave myopically. The tunnel simply clouds their vision and induces them to behave in this irrational manner.

The Scarcity Trap

One  type of  scarcity is  unavoidable. It is “a slice  of reality handed  out” (124). Unavoidable scarcity is the difference between someone living on dollars a day in a developing country compared to someone living on hundreds of dollars a day in a developed country.

Another type of scarcity results from human behavior. A scarcity trap is  â€œa situation  where a person’s  behavior contributes  to [his or] her scarcity”  (125). An initial scarcity  â€œis compounded by behaviors that  magnify it” (126). There are two  key features to a scarcity trap: being  one step behind and juggling.

Juggling is  “the  constant  move from  one pressing  task to the next”  (128).

It is an inevitable   result from tunneling. Just as a juggler focuses on the next ball that is about to drop, while tunneling we focus on the next deadline, bill, etc. We still have plenty  of tasks “in the air,” but we focus solely on the looming task at hand.

Juggling is why people treat predictable events as shocks. The bill due next week falls outside of the tunnel we created while trying to find a way to pay the bill due this week.

Shocks are a direct result of lack of slack. Shocks bigger than our slack push us right back into the  psychology of scarcity and generally trigger borrowing.

When you “lack savings or a second   car, and have no dinners to cancel, this becomes a serious challenge. Where will you get the money? At that  moment, you tunnel. You borrow. You start on a path back into a scarcity trap” (137).

The issue is that scarcity originates with mistakes that you make during periods of relative abundance.

As mentioned previously, during periods of abundance, we waste time and money. The rich generally come out fine because they have slack (whether it is time or money). The poor come out with too little slack, and are one shock away from falling into a scarcity trap.

In order to avoid scarcity, we must carry enough slack after inevitable overspending or procrastinating to sustain us through worldly shocks and shocks that we impose on ourselves.

The good news is that if we understand scarcity and how it impacts our behavior, we can manage it.

Designing for Scarcity: The Poor in Money

Understanding Poverty

Mullainathan and Shafir have predominately focused their research on the poor in time and the poor in money. There is one key difference between these two types of people: the poor in time can  change their situation if they so choose.

This is not to say that there won’t be negativerepercussions, however, they do have more power over their scarcity. The poor in money, on the other hand, are living in poverty. One cannot simply choose to vacate poverty.

Here are some general facts, quoted by Mullainathan and Shafir, on the poor in money:

  • They are more likely to forget to take their medications, often for serious illnesses including HIV, diabetes and tuberculosis.
  • They are worse parents. They are harsher, less consistent, more disconnected, and less loving.
  • They are more likely to be obese.
  • They are less likely to send their children to school or to have their children vaccinated.

Many believe that the poor-in-money’s  own failure causes their poverty. However, after considering the concepts that Mullainathan and Shafir discussed, we should take another look at the impoverished.

What is a possible cause of the poor-in-money’s seemingly irresponsible behavior?

Mullainathan and Shafir attribute their behavior to the bandwidth tax. This tax causes them to be more forgetful, specifically with their prospective memory. Prospective memory is the type of memory  that helps you remember things that you’ve  planned to do, such as take your medication   or call the doctor.

The bandwidth tax also causes reduced productivity at work, reduced ability to process new information, and fewer mental resources to exert self-control. Additionally, thoughts surrounding scarcity have a negative effect on the quality of sleep a person receives, further compromising bandwidth.

The bandwidth tax is the culprit of the poor-in-money’s  confused, uninterested demeanor. They are not incapable or unintelligent. Their bandwidth is simply compromised. This provides us a new way to view the poor-in-money’s  situation and provides greater insight into how they can be helped.

Improving Lives of the Poor in Money

In anti-poverty training programs, truancy is common and dropout rates are high. When a student misses a class or lets his or her mind wander during class, the next class becomes significantly more difficult. With each class building off the previous class, it is unlikely that the student  will recover.

Current “programs’ design presumes that if people are motivated enough, they will make no mistakes. Those who cannot be bothered to get to class on time, goes the implicit argument, must not care: they do not ‘deserve’ the training” (170).

Unfortunately, going mistake-free is significantly more challenging for a person in poverty because of their decreased bandwidth.

If our motive is to help others succeed, we could design more fault-tolerant programs. Perhaps programs could offer staggered modules to help students who have missed a class catch up and get back on track.

Additionally, aid-poverty programs seem to be using ineffective incentives. Consider the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) government program. A person is only allowed to receive assistance for a total of five years over his or her lifetime.

This is a long-term limit, and thus only enters the tunnel toward the end of its tenure. In order for a program to truly have an effect on behavior, its aspects must enter into the tunnel. This incentive could be achieved by sending reminders of the months remaining on the program or completely changing the structure of the time limit.

Instead of allowing individuals to receive aid from the program for a lifetime total of five years, they could receive aid for a certain number of months every two to three years.

Finally, we can help the poor by creating bandwidth: helping with childcare, providing small loans that can be paid off quickly, providing financial products that help the poor build savings slack, and creating financial instruments that turn lumpy income into smoother monthly payments. All of these actions “can liberate bandwidth, boost IQ, firm up self-control, enhance clarity of thinking, and improve sleep” (180).

Designing for Scarcity: The Poor in Time

Improving Scarcity in Organizations

The  best way  to improve  the scarcity  in organizations  is to realize slack’s  extreme importance. Many systems require slack in order to work well. For example, an underused assistant is highly valuable to a busy executive.

The assistant can focus solely on the tasks that the executive needs and complete them efficiently and effectively, thus reducing the bandwidth tax on the executive. If  other executives demanded a share of the assistant’s efforts, the current executive’s last minute requests would no longer be handled immediately.

A small shock could set the executive behind and force him to start juggling. The assistant’s underutilized time is what makes her so invaluable.

Having an appropriate amount of slack in an organization is important, but too much can make an  organization “fat.”

Consider the leveraged buyout wave in the 1980’s when individuals   would come in and discipline a company with debt. This led to improved performance and more careful executive spending, which produced greater profits.

Clearly, there is an art to having enough slack in a company. Mullainathan and Shafir suggest hiring an individual whose job is to ensure that the organization has enough slack. This position could provide a third person point of view and allow someone to focus on what possible shocks might  upset tomorrow’s tight schedule.

Organizations also need to make sure that they are managing the right resource – time or bandwidth.

Henry Ford knew what he was doing by enforcing the 40-hour workweek. Today, more individuals work in services rather than manufacturing; however, companies must take mental depletion just as seriously as physical depletion.

We need time to recover from the tasks that we ask our minds to do. Many companies have enacted energy management programs that plan out walk breaks and emphasize the importance of sleep. Our cognitive system is no different than our physical system and should be taken care of as such.

Learning how to manage scarcity in organizations is vital – “businesses  often succeed and fail as a function of how they manage scarcity”  (203).

Improving Scarcity in Everyday Life

Because we know what generally causes the psychological cycle of scarcity to occur, why not scarcity-proof our lives?

For example, one executive has his assistant come into each meeting when there is five minutes left. She makes a “five minutes” announcement and then comes back at the scheduled end time as well.

This signals to the other party that their time is over, and it keeps the busy executive on time and not fighting against falling one step behind and juggling his schedule day after day.

We  can also  have influence  over what’s inside  our tunnel. Exercising  might not be a priority  because it is never at the top of the mind. However,  with a personal trainer’s daily phone calls, it   makes it hard to forget about. Simple reminders are often unappreciated.

Furthermore,  we should take  advantage of “neglecting”  things.

We experience two  types of choicesone-off choices and vigilant choices. One-off choices are done once or infrequently while vigilant choices have to be continuously repeated. When possible, it is wise to convert vigilant choices into one-off choices.

Automatic 10% deductions from our paychecks and automatic bill pay are two of the most bandwidth creating, one-off choice resources to take advantage  of. Some of “the most persistent tunneling problems for the busy these daysare those tasks that cannot be automated” (210).

Car registration, driver’s license renewal, and taxes are items that cannot yet be automated, but individuals should take advantage of neglecting where they can.

Ultimately, we need to economize on bandwidth.

We know that we have a certain capacity to process information each day, so why not think about when we would be most effective doing the tasks at hand.

We can break our day into high bandwidth times and low bandwidth times. Easier, more routine tasks should be performed in low bandwidth times while challenging tasks should be performed in high bandwidth times.

Finally, we should never forget the importance of slack! Why not leave an hour in your schedule open every Wednesday that is designated for the shocks of daily life?

Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Now that we better understand the effect that the bandwidth tax has on our lives, we can better evaluate programs and policies, and scarcity-proof our organizations and our daily lives.

If you follow the thread of scarcity, it generally leads back to abundance over enough time. In times of abundance, we should build a buffer for the shocks to come. In the words of Mullainathan and Shafir,  “scarcity plays a starring role in many problems, [and] abundance sets the stage for it” (234). would like to thank the Titans of Investing for allowing us to publish this content. Titans is a student organization founded by Britt Harris. Learn more about the organization and the man behind it by clicking either of these links.

Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.

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