Skip to main content

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.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…