Let me start by stating that I’m not one for reading nonfiction, preferring to lose myself between the pages of literary fiction, contemporary fiction, or an occasional memoir. I venture in to nonfiction only based on strong recommendations. And when I say strong, I mean, “change-the-way-you-think” strong.
I’d gotten just such a recommendation for this book by a friend who works for a non-profit. She had recently built a comprehensive suite of free services for low-income populations offered at locations within their neighborhood. Yet despite the no cost offering and the close proximity of those services to their target population, many of their clients continued to miss appointments or decline services altogether. She and her team were baffled. My friend then came across Scarcity and said that it provided an inordinate amount of insight into the challenges of their clients and even helped them think about ways to restructure their program. I was intrigued.
Published in 2013, the book is a study on the psychological impacts of scarcity – how people change their behaviors when they are in a situation of lack – whether it be for money, but also for time, for calories (while dieting), or even a lack of companionship (folks that are lonely). Data was aggregated across multiple sources, and they tested a whole host of variables in their subjects including geography, occupation, income, ethnic origin, and time. The surprising result – at least for me – was that every human when faced with scarcity of some form reacts in a similar fashion. Whether it’s a farmer in India or a wealthy housewife in New Jersey, people have a tendency to get tunnel vision on the problem at hand, have reduced executive decision making skills, and in some cases, could even experience a swing in IQ up to 12 points depending on a scarcity situation. These factors and others (trying to preserve some of the ah-hah moments in the book), when compiled, make it nearly impossible to break the scarcity cycle.
Providing amazing insight on how scarcity can impact the human psyche, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir present a thoughtful, brilliantly written and researched book on the impact that scarcity has on all of us. Not only does it challenge some of the common misconceptions and assumptions as to the “whys” behind the behavior of the less fortunate, it provides insights on how to structure programs that can help to end the cycle of scarcity.
A particularly relevant topic based on the current administration’s attitudes and proposed policies on public assistance programs, but regardless of your political inclinations, an amazing read.