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It Captures Your Mind

Museum of Modern Art, New York City/Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.
Bill Brandt: Northumbrian Miner at His Evening Meal, 1937; from ‘Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light,’ a recent exhibition of his photographs at MoMA. The catalog, by Sarah Hermanson Meister, is published by MoMA and distributed by DAP. For more on Brandt’s work, see the NYRgallery.

There is a great deal of unlovely jargon within the federal government. The product of an activity is called “the deliverable.” A task that follows a meeting is called a “do-out.” A request for action is described as “the ask.” If someone needs to continue a discussion with a colleague, he will promise to “circle back.” If a project must be abandoned or put on hold because of competing demands on people’s time and attention, the problem is one of “bandwidth.” Of course such terms can be found in many other places, including in businesses, but they are used with particular regularity in Washington, D.C.

Of the various unlovely terms, “bandwidth” is the most useful and the most interesting. The central idea is that public officials have the capacity to focus on, and to promote and implement, only a subset of the universe of good ideas. Bandwidth is limited partly for political reasons. In any particular period, members of Congress, executive branch officials, and the public itself may be unwilling to support more than a small set of proposals. But much of the problem involves the limits of time and attention. A proposed reform might seem excellent, and it might even be able to attract considerable political support, but the minds of the people who might pursue it are occupied, and they do not have the time to learn about it and to explore its merits. Within government, some good ideas fail to go anywhere, not because anyone opposes them, but because the system lacks the bandwidth to investigate them.

Economists focus on the problem of scarcity—on how people allocate their resources (including both time and money) in the face of many competing demands. In their extraordinarily illuminating book, the behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the cognitive psychologist Eldar Shafir explore something quite different, which is the feeling of scarcity, and the psychological and behavioral consequences of that feeling. They know that the feeling of scarcity differs across various kinds of experiences and that people can feel “poor” with respect to money, time, or relationships with others.

But their striking claim, based on careful empirical research, is that across all of those categories, the feeling of scarcity has quite similar effects. It puts people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb. What we often consider a part of people’s basic character—an inability to learn, a propensity to anger or impatience—may well be a product of their feeling of scarcity. If any of us were similarly situated, we might end up with a character a lot like theirs. An insidious problem is that scarcity produces more scarcity. It creates its own trap.

Because they lack money, poor people must focus intensely on the economic consequences of expenditures that wealthy people consider trivial and not worth worrying over. Those without a lot of time have to hoard their minutes, and they may have trouble planning for the long term. The cash-poor and the time-poor have much in common with lonely people, for whom relationships with others are scarce. When people struggle with scarcity, their minds are intensely occupied, even taken over, by what they lack.

Mullainathan and Shafir offer a somewhat macabre illustration. Toward the end of World War II, the Allies knew that they would find a lot of Europeans on the edge of starvation, and they wanted to learn exactly how they should start to feed those whom they were liberating. Are full meals a good idea? Should they begin with small quantities? To answer these questions, researchers at the University of Minnesota engaged in an experiment with healthy male volunteers whose calories were reduced to the point right above the level where they would be permanently harmed. The most surprising finding was psychological. The men became not merely hungry but completely focused on food:

Obsessions developed around cookbooks and menus from local restaurants. Some men could spend hours comparing the prices of fruits and vegetables from one newspaper to the next. Some planned now to go into agriculture. They dreamed of new careers as restaurant owners…. When they went to the movies, only the scenes with food held their interest.

A participant in the study recalled the experience as horrific, not so much “because of the physical discomfort, but because it made food the most important thing in one’s life…food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life.” For Mullainathan and Shafir, the central point is that “scarcity captures the mind.”

Here’s a less grisly illustration. Researchers asked people to view a screen with words flashing across it very quickly (1/30 of second), and to say whether they could identify those words. The words included RAKE, TAKE, and CAKE. Participants were invited to come to the lab three or four hours before the experiment began; some of them were asked to go out and get lunch during that time, while others ate nothing. In general, the hungry participants did about as well on the test as those who had eaten. But they did a lot better on food-related words. When the word CAKE was onscreen, they saw it, even when it escaped the attention of those who had had lunch. Importantly, they saw it subconsciously, not deliberately; the flash was far too fast to allow any kind of conscious control. (For people who are thirsty, the same test works with words like WATER.)

Something similar happens for scarcity of all kinds. Lonely people do not do better than others in remembering what they have read, but they stand out in their ability to recall parts of a narrative that involve interactions with others. Remarkably, poor children systematically overestimate the size of bigger coins (quarters and half-dollars), evidently because they loom large to them. At restaurants and airports, people who are going through divorce are especially alert to the presence of couples and families.

Mullainathan and Shafir emphasize that scarcity can have distinctive benefits, simply because it focuses the mind. If you face scarcity, you may end up in a kind of psychological tunnel, and your focus may well have a beneficial effect. People often work best in the face of an imminent deadline—not only more rapidly, but also more creatively. In his book on Winston Churchill, Max Hastings quoted the diplomat Lord D’Abernon: “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” Studies of meetings establish that it is only as time gets short that people start to make progress. (A lesson for institutions of all kinds: consider cutting the length of all meetings in half.) After a trip to the supermarket, most people do not remember how much they spent on particular items, but poor people do.

Psychologists and behavioral economists have found that with respect to money, many people make what economists regard as a series of cognitive mistakes. For example, most of us value a ticket to a sports event as the amount that we paid for it, rather than as the amount we could get for it if we sold it on the open market (the right measure from the economic point of view). Intensely focused on their economic situation, poor people are far less likely to make that particular mistake.

The downside is that by occupying the mind, scarcity can prevent people from attending to other matters. If the mind is full, it will have a hard time absorbing new material. When sixth-graders take classes near a noisy railroad line, they learn a lot less, ending up a full year behind their counterparts. Social scientists have done a lot of experiments involving “cognitive load.” In such experiments, they ask people to solve complex problems and then test whether the effort affects their behavior in other respects, for example by leading them to choose chocolate cake over fruit. The standard finding is that their self-control is diminished; they are more likely to go for the cake. Mullainathan and Shafir think that scarcity works in the same way. It imposes a kind of “bandwidth tax” that impairs people’s ability to perform well.

In one experiment, they asked a group of people to imagine that their car needed to be fixed, that the repair would cost $300, and that they were making a choice between getting it fixed immediately or waiting (and hoping that the car might work for a while longer). Then the authors asked: How would you make this decision? Would it be an easy or hard decision to make? After receiving people’s answers, the authors asked them a series of questions of the sort that appear on conventional intelligence tests. Well-off people and poor people did not show any difference in intelligence.

In a second version of the experiment, the authors posed exactly the same problem, but with a single difference: the cost of the repair was $3,000 rather than $300. Here is the remarkable finding: After encountering the second version of the problem, poor people did significantly worse than well-off people on the same intelligence test. What explains the difference? The answer is not more challenging arithmetic. When the authors posed nonfinancial problems, the use of small or large numbers produced no difference between poor people and rich people. Nor did the problem involve a lack of motivation. When the authors paid people for correct answers (and thus gave poor people an especially strong incentive to do well), the $3,000 version continued to create a large difference between poor people and well-off people on general intelligence questions.

Mullainathan and Shafir attribute the result to the fact that for people without a lot of money, it is extremely challenging to try to figure out a way to come up with $3,000. To meet that challenge, they have to think extremely hard, which is depleting, and which makes it harder to do well on subsequent tasks. After people are depleted in that way, they do worse on intelligence tests. (Recall the sixth-graders who learned less because of background noise, and the food-obsessed participants in the University of Minnesota study; it is a fair bet that they would not have done so well on intelligence tests.) Mullainathan and Shafir replicated their general result with sugar cane farmers in India, finding that they do far worse on intelligence tests before a harvest, when they have little money and are preoccupied with how to make ends meet, than after a harvest, when cash is plentiful. Stunningly, the effect of plentiful cash was equivalent to a nine-to-ten-point boost in IQ.

A depletion of bandwidth also reduces people’s capacity for self-control. After being asked to try to remember eight-digit numbers, people are more likely to be rude in difficult social situations. The general lesson is that when people’s attention is absorbed by other matters, they are more likely to yield to their impulses. With this lesson in mind, Mullainathan and Shafir insist that certain characteristics that we attribute to individual personality (lack of motivation, inability to focus) may actually be a problem of limited bandwidth. The problem is scarcity, not the person. Compare a computer that is working slowly because a lot of other programs are operating in the background. Nothing is wrong with the computer; you just need to turn off the other programs.

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