70 Top Quotes From Scarcity

In "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much," Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir delve into the profound impact that scarcity has on human behavior and decision-making. The authors explore how the feeling of having too little time, money, or any other resource can tunnel our focus, impairing our cognitive abilities and leading to a series of detrimental consequences.

Drawing on research from various fields, including psychology and economics, Mullainathan and Shafir shed light on the vicious cycle of scarcity, where the very condition of lacking something essential creates further limitations. By illuminating the cognitive and psychological toll of scarcity, this thought-provoking book challenges conventional wisdom and opens the reader's eyes to the struggles faced by individuals grappling with limited resources.

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With empathy and insight, "Scarcity" not only brings to light the complexities of scarcity's grip but also offers potential pathways for mitigating its effects and designing more compassionate policies to support those in need. (Scarcity Summary).

Scarcity Quotes

"Abundance means freedom from trade-offs.” (Meaning)

"Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.”

"To be free from a scarcity trap, it is not enough to have more resources than desires on average. It is as important to have enough slack (or some other mechanism) for handling the big shocks that may come one’s way at any moment."

"When scarcity captures the mind, we become more attentive and efficient.”

"The poor stay poor, the lonely stay lonely, the busy stay busy, and diets fail. Scarcity creates a mindset that perpetuates scarcity.”

"One broad theme emerges from decades of this research: the poor are worse parents. They are harsher with their kids, they are less consistent, more disconnected, and thus appear less loving. They are more likely to take out their own anger on the child; one day they will admonish the child for one thing and the next day they will admonish her for the opposite;”

"Scarcity is not just a physical constraint. It is also a mindset. When scarcity captures our attention, it changes how we think—whether it is at the level of milliseconds, hours, or days and weeks. By staying top of mind, it affects what we notice, how we weigh our choices, how we deliberate, and ultimately what we decide and how we behave. When we function under scarcity, we represent, manage, and deal with problems differently.”

"We pinch pennies on small items, yet we blow dollars on big ones. Our frugality is thereby largely wasted. We spend hours surfing the web to save $50 on a $150 pair of shoes. Yet we forgo a few hours’ search to save a couple of hundred dollars on a $20,000 car. These findings are important because they demonstrate how people routinely violate economists’ standard “rational” models of human behavior.”

"The challenges of sticking to a plan, the inability to resist a new leather jacket or a new project, the forgetfulness (the car registration, making a phone call, paying a bill) and the cognitive slips (the misestimated bank account balance, the mishandled invitation) all happen because of a shortage of bandwidth. There is one particularly important consequence: it further perpetuates scarcity. It was not a coincidence that Sendhil and Shawn fell into a trap and stayed there. Scarcity creates its own trap.”

"The present presses automatically on you. The future does not. To attend to the future requires bandwidth, which scarcity taxes. When scarcity taxes our bandwidth, we become even more focused on the here and now. We need cognitive resources to gauge future needs, and we need executive control to resist present temptations. As it taxes our bandwidth, scarcity focuses on the present, and leads us to borrow.”

"Diets prove difficult precisely because they focus us on that which we are trying to avoid.”

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"When scarcity captures the mind, we become more attentive and efficient.”

"Scarcity of any kind, not just time, should yield a focus dividend.”

"Scarcity in one walk of life means we have less attention, less mind, in the rest of life.”

"Many systems require slack in order to work well. Old reel-to-reel tape recorders needed an extra bit of tape fed into the mechanism to ensure that the tape wouldn't rip. Your coffee grinder won't grind if you overstuff it. Roadways operate best below 70 percent capacity; traffic jams are caused by lack of slack.”

"We fail to build slack because we focus on what must be done now and do not think enough about all the things that can arise in the future. The present is imminently clear whereas future contingences are less pressing and harder to imagine. When the intangible future comes face to face with the palpable present, slack feels like a luxury.”

"Rather, what the study shows is that cost-benefit considerations do not determine whether we tunnel. Scarcity captures our minds automatically. And when it does, we do not make trade-offs using a careful cost-benefit calculus.”

"Here was an expert who had spent years perfecting her craft, yet one of her best dishes was created under intense pressure, in a couple of hours.”

"A scarcity of guesses in both games meant they could not neglect either one, whereas abundance in one game led them to neglect that game in favor of the one they felt poor on.”

"A standard impulse when there is a lot to do is to pack tightly-- as tightly as possible, to fit everything in. And when you are not tightly packed, there's a feeling that perhaps you are not doing enough...You have undervalued slack. The slightest glitch imposes an obligation you can no longer afford, and borrowing from tomorrow's budget comes at high interest.”

"Scarcity directly reduces bandwidth—not a person’s inherent capacity but how much of that capacity is currently available for use.”

"How smart do you feel after a night of no sleep? How sharp would you be the next morning? Our study revealed that simply raising monetary concerns for the poor erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived.”

"Because the focus on scarcity is involuntary, and because it captures our attention, it impedes our ability to focus on other things.”

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"Bandwidth measures our computational capacity, our ability to pay attention, to make good decisions, to stick with our plans, and to resist temptations.”

"Immediate scarcity looms large, and important things unrelated to it will be neglected.”

"The focus dividend—heightened productivity when facing a deadline or the accuracy advantage of the blueberry poor—comes from our core mechanism: scarcity captures the mind. The word capture here is essential: this happens unavoidably and beyond our control. Scarcity allows us to do something we could not do easily on our own.”

"Here we see that slack provides a hidden efficiency. It gives us room to maneuver, to reshuffle when we err. Slack gives us room to fail.”

"This is how scarcity taxes bandwidth. The things that distract us, that occupy our mind, need not come from outside us.”

"Better design will have to incorporate fundamental insights about focusing and bandwidth that emerge from the psychology of scarcity.”

"Scarcity captures the mind. Just as the starving subjects had food on their mind, when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.”

"Scarcity captures our minds automatically. And when it does, we do not make trade-offs using a careful cost-benefit calculus. We tunnel on managing scarcity both to our benefit and to our detriment.”

"Getting out of a scarcity trap first requires formulating a plan, something the scarcity mindset does not easily accommodate. Making a plan is important but not urgent, exactly the sort of thing that tunneling leads us to neglect. Planning requires stepping back, yet juggling keeps us locked into the current situation. Focusing on the ball that is about to drop makes it terribly difficult to see the big picture. You would love to stop playing catch-up, but you have too much to do to figure out how. Right now you must make your rent payment. Right now you must meet that project deadline. Long-term planning clearly falls outside the tunnel.”

"Self-control remains one of the more difficult parts of the study of psychology. We know many ingredients go into the manufacturing of self-control. It depends on how we weigh the future. And we appear to do it inconsistently. Immediate rewards (a marshmallow now) are salient and receive a heavy weight. Rewards in the distant future (two marshmallows later) are less salient and thus receive lower weight. So when we think about one versus two marshmallows in the abstract future, two is better than one. But when one marshmallow is right in front of us now, it suddenly beats two.”

"Even in a country like the United States, poverty is stark. Nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States will at some point be on food stamps. About 15 percent of American households had trouble finding food for the family at some point during the year.”

"There is already a science of scarcity. You might have heard of it. It’s called economics.” He was right, of course. Economics is the study of how we use our limited means to achieve our unlimited desires; how people and societies manage physical scarcity”

"This is a basic feature of the mind: focusing on one thing inhibits competing concepts. Inhibition is what happens when you are angry with someone, and it is harder to remember their good traits: the focus on the annoying traits inhibits positive memories.”

"It says that periods of scarcity can elicit behaviors that end up pulling us into a scarcity trap. And with scarcity traps, what would otherwise be periods of abundance punctuated by moments of scarcity can quickly become perpetual scarcity.”

"We should remember that scarcity often begins with abundance. The crunch just before a deadline often originates with ample time used ineffectively in the weeks preceding it.”

"If you are like many people, you can see for yourself. Just go to your kitchen and look in your pantry. It is probably full of items bought in the distant past. In this you are not alone. Kitchen cabinets across the United States are full of soups, jams, and canned food that have not been used for ages. So common is this phenomenon that food researchers have a name for it: they call these items cabinet castaways. Some estimates suggest that one in ten items bought in the grocery store is destined to become a cabinet castaway.”

"The core of the problem is a lack of slack.”

"In this view, the vendor falls back into the scarcity trap because she did not have enough slack in her budget to weather the shocks she faces. Shocks bigger than her slack push her right back into the psychology of scarcity.”

"The poor have their own planes in the air. They are juggling rent, loans, late bills, and counting days till the next paycheck. Their bandwidth is used up in managing scarcity.”

"Like the dieters, the money poor, and the lonely, these blueberry-poor subjects are taxed by scarcity.”

"Recall that a great deal of juggling among the poor comes from fighting everyday fires. If we can help people fight these fires, we will create new bandwidth.”

"Any slight instability is a threat hovering over a life lived at the edge of a scarcity trap, because with little slack to absorb it, instability is almost certain to be felt.”

"The scarcity mindset can operate with far greater import in one context than in another.”

"We often associate scarcity with its most dire consequences. This was how we had initially conceived of this book—the poor mired in debt; the busy perpetually behind on their work. Amanda Cohen’s experience illustrates another side of scarcity, a side that can easily go undetected: scarcity can make us more effective.”

"It is the worst of all possible arrangements: it penalizes but fails to motivate.”

"We all have had experiences where we did remarkable things when we had less, when we felt constrained.”

"It is easy to confuse a mind loaded by scarcity for one that is inherently less capable.”

"Why do we borrow when we face situations of scarcity? We borrow because we tunnel. And when we borrow, we dig ourselves deeper in the future. Scarcity today creates more scarcity tomorrow.”

"One reason for this is the bandwidth tax. The present presses automatically on you. The future does not. To attend to the future requires bandwidth, which scarcity taxes. When scarcity taxes our bandwidth, we become even more focused on the here and now. We need cognitive resources to gauge future needs, and we need executive control to resist present temptations. As it taxes our bandwidth, scarcity focuses us on the present, and leads us to borrow.”

"For example, researchers have documented a bias toward the here and now, which they call hyperbolic discounting, or present bias. We overvalue immediate benefits at the expense of future ones: this is why it is hard to save, to go to the gym, or to do your taxes early.”

"An example of what we will call a scarcity trap: a situation where a person’s behavior contributes to her scarcity.”

"What this tells us is that expertise, a deeper understanding of the units, can alter perception.”

"The scarcity mindset, in contrast, is a contextual outcome, more open to remedies. Rather than a personal trait, it is the outcome of environmental conditions brought on by scarcity itself, conditions that can often be managed. The more we understand the dynamics of how scarcity works upon the human mind, the more likely we can find ways to avoid or at least alleviate the scarcity trap.”

"Imagine working on a presentation that you need to deliver at a meeting. In the days leading up to the meeting, you work hard but you vacillate. The ideas may be there, but tough choices need to be made on how to pull it all together. Once the deadline closes in, though, there is no more time for dawdling. Scarcity forces all the choices.”

"Tunneling leads us to borrow so that we are using the same physical resources less effectively, placing us one step behind. Because we tunnel, we neglect, and then we find ourselves needing to juggle. The scarcity trap becomes a complicated affair, a patchwork of delayed commitments and costly short-term solutions that need to be constantly revisited and revised. We do not have the bandwidth to plan a way out of this trap. And when we make a plan, we lack the bandwidth needed to resist temptations and persist. Moreover, the lack of slack means that we have no capacity to absorb shocks. And all this is compounded by our failure to use the precious moments of abundance to create future buffers.”

"Companies are not immune to the psychology of scarcity. For example, during lean times, many firms slash their marketing budgets. Some experts believe that this is not a sound business decision. In fact, it looks a lot like tunneling.”

"Another manifestation of tunneling is the decision to multitask. We may check e-mail while “listening in” on a conference call, or squeeze in a bit more e-mail on the cell phone over dinner. This has the benefit of saving time, but it comes at a cost: missing something on the call or at dinner or writing a sloppy e-mail.”

"The questions in Family Feud, by contrast, are accessible and engrossing because there is no correct answer, only popular ones. It democratizes truth—you could call it the first postmodern game show.”

"Trying to focus on making ends meet right now, we fail to consider the impact in the future of raising the insurance deductible.”

"Conversely, fixing some of those bottlenecks can have far-reaching consequences. Child care provides more than just child care, and the right financial product does much more than just create savings for a rainy day. Each of these can liberate bandwidth, boost IQ, firm up self-control, enhance clarity of thinking, and even improve sleep.”

"We would argue that the poor do have lower effective capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.”

"With compromised bandwidth, we are more likely to give in to our impulses, more likely to cave in to temptations. With little slack, we have less room to fail. With compromised bandwidth, we are more likely to fail.”

"It does not mean that the only way to solve the vendor’s problem is to give her even more money. Rather, this discussion highlights the need for instruments for buffering against shocks.”

"We can also look to the lack of a buffer.”

"These become buffers not merely for managing risk. They are also bulwarks against slipping back into the scarcity trap.”

― Quotes from the book Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan

Scarcity Author

An influential economist and writer, Sendhil Mullainathan explores the intersection of economics, psychology, and social behavior to shed light on the complexities of human decision-making. In collaboration with Eldar Shafir, he co-authored the book "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much," which examines how scarcity—whether of time, money, or other resources—affects our cognitive processes and behaviors. Mullainathan's writing style is intellectually rigorous yet accessible, making complex economic principles comprehensible to a broader audience. His work challenges conventional thinking about poverty, rationality, and human nature, revealing how the experience of scarcity can lead to tunnel vision and diminished cognitive bandwidth. Mullainathan's insights have significant implications for public policy and social interventions, inspiring readers to approach economic issues with a more nuanced and empathetic perspective. Through his research and writing, Sendhil Mullainathan continues to advance our understanding of the human mind and its response to the challenges posed by scarcity.

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Chief Editor

Tal Gur is an author, founder, and impact-driven entrepreneur at heart. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His journey and most recent book, The Art of Fully Living, has led him to found Elevate Society.

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