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Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

5:10pm, October 13, 2013

Shortages can gnaw at more than your belly. Mullainathan and Shafir argue that scarcity — whether of food, time or anything else — changes how you think. At the personal level, focusing on what’s lacking induces irrational patterns of thinking, changing a person’s behavior and laying traps that spring later.

“Scarcity captures the mind,” write the authors, an economist and a psychologist. In research on hunger in the 1940s, volunteers who ate very little food for months didn’t just lose weight. Their attitudes changed. They began talking about cookbooks and reciting restaurant menus. After watching a movie, many could not recall the plot but remembered what each character ate.

Hunger and other kinds of scarcity induce a mindset that gobbles up inordinate portions of a person’s cognitive capacity (SN: 12/1/12, p. 17). It’s not always bad: Scarcity can hone focus. A lack of time, for

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