Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scarcity - Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir ****

There is no scarcity of books about the brain and psychology and emotion. In fact, the shelves are groaning with them. But here's a psychological take on what you might regard as a problem of economics - and that makes it genuinely fascinating. So it's a shame that it doesn't work better as a book - but this is one of those titles that you will want to read despite that.

The authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir look at the nature of scarcity and, crucially, the effect it has on human performance. You might hear the term and think it's about going hungry - and that is one example of scarcity - but they also look at what happens when money, time and even friends are in short supply. Although they aren't exact analogues, all have related impacts on us as human beings.

By referencing the best available studies (and doing a few of their own), the authors come to some important conclusions. Scarcity isn't all bad. It concentrates the mind - gives us focus. But there is a price to pay for being in that tunnel. It means that other essential aspects of life get ignored. And, most strikingly, what the authors call 'bandwidth' - a combination of cognitive ability and ability to concentrate - is reduced. They call this a 'bandwidth tax'.

So far, so engaging. We aren't just offered the symptoms and diagnosis, but also some attempts to counter this. Pointing out, for instance, that it's better for people to make decisions and learn things when they are going through a good phase than through scarcity. However I have two problems with this as a book. One is that while it's no textbook, it really isn't particularly readable - it takes a really interesting subject and makes it a bit dull. And the other is that there are strong signs that this is really a magazine article, not a book. For page after page the same thing is said in subtly different ways. If I see the word 'bandwidth' again today, I'll scream. The meat of this book could easily fit in 4,000 words.

So, paradoxically, I do urge you to read the book, as the subject is well worth exploring - but I can't promise that you will enjoy the experience.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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