“Scarcity captures the mind.”

That’s one of the key statements in a fascinating book I’ve been “reading” recently. (I’m never sure what to call what I’m doing when I listen to a book on Audible: “reading” or “listening” or “consuming”? I could use some guidance.)

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Muchby Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, provides a sort of unified field theory of scarcity, one that explains the mechanism of scarcity across categories—from the physical (say, the poor, who lack essentials, and those who are comfortable but feel they are lacking the latest shiny thing, for example) to the temporal (anybody out there feel as if they don’t have enough time to do everything they expect of themselves?) to the relational (loneliness).

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Muchby Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Sendhil and Eldar provide a couple useful concepts in understanding the captivity of our minds.

Tunneling. Focusing on the item of scarcity. Dieters who can’t think about anything but food. Lonely folks who fixate on an upcoming date. Those without money on ways to get it.

Bandwidth. The amount of mental resources available. In the most basic formulation, tunneling captures a portion of one’s bandwidth. Decisions made while distracted by tunneling tend to be worse than those made with one’s full attention. The argument here is that persistent scarcity is a headwind on all decision-making, a “tax” of sorts.

Slack. A reserve of some type that lessens the scarcity mindset, alleviates tunneling, and preserves bandwidth.

The authors are a behaviorial economist and a psychologist, and the book is well worth a read. It helped me to put some of my own behaviors and patterns in context, especially around “wanting mind,” and to better understand the decisions through a scarcity lens. As I ready for a service trip to Haiti, it served to remind me to listen closely to those I will meet rather than try to “fix” something or someone. For all of that, I’m grateful.

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