Q&A: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Oct 22, 2013
B. Rose Huber
Woodrow Wilson School

Busy people, dieters, the poor and the lonely may all have something in common – having too little. Whether it's time, calories, money or friends, a dearth of resources can shape decision-making processes and ways of life.

In his book, "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much," Woodrow Wilson Professor Eldar Shafir examines how such scarcity – and our flawed responses to it – creates a similar psychology for those struggling with less. Together with Sendhil Mullainathan from Harvard, Shafir brings into focus, the strategies scarcity imposes, and how it affects the daily lives of many. The book was named one of the New Scientist's "Best Science Books of 2013."

Steven D. Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics calls the book, "captivating, overflowing with new ideas, fantastic stories and simple suggestions that just might change the way you live." The Economist writes: "The book's unified theory of the scarcity mentality is novel in its scope and ambition." Daniel Pink, author of Drive and To Sell is Human, says the book has "huge implications for both personal development and public policy." And of the team, Daniel Kahneman, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School and professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs, says: "Shafir and Mullainathan are stars in their respective disciplines, and the combination is greater than the sum of its parts."

Below Shafir provides a behind-the-scenes at what inspired him and Mullainathan to address these scarcities plaguing the world. [Scroll down for expanded responses.]

Q: Why did you write this book?

Shafir: For the last eight years or so, we've been focusing on decision-making in the context of poverty. What is it that drives decisions for people in poverty? We came at it saying poor people are just idiosyncratic and confused, much like the rest of us. But then we found circumstances that really were sort of unique and much more extreme. We started wondering: why is it that people we assume are just like everybody else are exhibiting different behaviors? This question led us to this notion of scarcity and the psychology that comes with not having enough which, when exhibited, leads to very bad outcomes. So, we began with a concern for poverty and soon found it could extend much further, and the book represents that.

Q: What are the main takeaways you want your readers to know?

Shafir: Cognitive bandwidth matters. Small distractions have bigger impacts than we realize on how much mind we have left for other things. Scarcity constitutes a persistent distraction. And scarcity really manifests itself in different forms. For example, the busy, in many ways, exhibit a psychology similar to the poor in money, the dieters, and the lonely. This, we hope, may help create an empathy bridge between the busy and the poor; they're both similar. We're all behaving the same way, just in different domains. And, in many cases, when you’re poor the cost is more severe.

Q: What are the policy implications going forward?

Shafir: If taken seriously, understanding the role of bandwidth and the impact it has on people could help us design better policies and interventions. For example, let's say you designed a benefits program for the poor like food stamps. It would never occur to you to charge those people $200 to join; money is exactly what they don't have. That's an obstacle. But when you impose other obstacles – like recertification requirements, filling out forms or demanding that people remember and show up exactly on time – you're imposing a bandwidth tax on people who suffer from insufficient cognitive bandwidth. So we need to think more about how we impose on those individuals' cognitive bandwidths and how we can help them succeed in a highly challenging environment, rather than creating (often unintentionally) obstacles that only increase the chance they fail.

Other reviews include:

Boston Globe (Oct. 9)

Spencer Daily Reporter

Psych Central

The Economist

Publisher's Weekly

New Statesman

The Guardian

Thomson Reuters

New York Review of Books

Center for Financial Inclusion

Marginal Revolution

Scientific American

"MarketPlace" (NPR)

The Times Higher Education

The Times


Boston Globe (Nov. 10)

More information:

"Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much" by Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan (Times Books, September 2013)