• Email
  • Print

It Captures Your Mind

sunstein_1-092613.jpg
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.

sunstein_2-092613.jpg
Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

In this light, it should be easy to see why Mullainathan and Shafir think that scarcity tends to produce more of the same. For example, most of us are susceptible to “the planning fallacy,” which means that we are unrealistically optimistic about how long it will take to complete a project. But busy people are especially vulnerable, since they are attending to their past and current projects and so are “more distracted and overwhelmed—a surefire way to misplan.” Poor people are unlikely to take the time required to understand the small print on low-cost mortgage forms, even if they contain information that they need to understand. They are also more likely to resort to payday loans, which have high fees, and which can create a kind of trap, in which people end up taking out payday loans to pay back their payday loans. The underlying problem is that when people “tunnel,” they focus on their immediate problem; “knowing you will be hungry next month does not capture your attention the same way that being hungry today does.” A behavioral consequence of scarcity is “juggling,” which prevents long-term planning.

Those who live in circumstances of abundance have a kind of cushion, which allows them to avoid depletion. If wealthy people are confronted with a serious economic “shock,” requiring them to spend a great deal of cash on an emergency, their lives are not turned upside-down. With respect to money itself, this point is self-evident, but Mullainathan and Shafir want to draw attention to its psychological and behavioral consequences. When bad surprises occur, those who live under circumstances of abundance (with respect to money or time) do not have to devote a lot of mental energy to them.

Short of creating widespread abundance, can anything be done to reduce the harmful effects of scarcity? Mullainathan and Shafir organize their answer around an arresting story. During World War II, the United States military was faced with a series of “wheels-up” crashes, which occurred when pilots, upon landing, retracted the wheels rather than the flaps. The occurrence of these crashes was a puzzle. Did the pilots suffer from poor training, carelessness, or fatigue? It turned out that the problem was limited to bomber pilots, flying B-17s and B-25s. In those particular planes, the wheel controls and the flap controls looked almost identical, and they were side by side. Pilot errors turned out to be cockpit design errors. A small change in the controls was sufficient to eliminate the problem.

Mullainathan and Shafir think that a lot of problems in life stem from something like cockpit design errors. They want institutions and individuals to make the social environment “scarcity-proof.” To understand their perspective, it is useful to consider the words of the economist Esther Duflo, one of the world’s leading experts on poverty:

We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think, “Why don’t they take more responsibility for their lives?” And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care [of] for you. And the poorer you are the more you have to be responsible for everything about your life…. Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.*

Mullainathan and Shafir seek to identify ways to help people to end up on the right track if they do nothing, or at least much less. One possibility is to make certain outcomes automatic, so that people do not have to think about them at all. For example, many workers are busy, and they do not take the time to sign up for pension plans. In the United States, numerous employers have recently adopted automatic enrollment plans, signing workers up themselves (while allowing them to opt out). There is evidence that in bringing about an increase in savings, automatic enrollment can have an even bigger effect than significant tax incentives. With respect to health insurance, Obamacare requires large employers (those with more than two hundred employees) to enroll employees automatically. For economic planning in general, Mullainathan and Shafir urge that people would greatly benefit from small steps that make certain actions unnecessary (such as, for example, automatic bill payment).

Another approach involves simple reminders. Many people fail to pay bills on time (and thus end up paying late fees). Others forget to make an appointment with a doctor or dentist (and thus risk serious health problems). Still others fail to pay attention when their driver’s license is expiring (and thus risk criminal penalties). Evidence suggests that if people are sent reminders, perhaps by text messages, such problems are significantly reduced. In the same vein, reductions in the burdens of paperwork can substantially increase participation in private and public programs, including those designed to give people financial aid for college and to promote job training. Mullainathan and Shafir think that if they focus on the corrosive psychological consequences of scarcity, individuals and institutions will be able to identify a host of promising reforms.

In providing a unified treatment of those consequences, Mullainathan and Shafir have made an important, novel, and immensely creative contribution. But there is an immediate question, which is whether their real topic is stress rather than scarcity. We might well think that stress is scarcity’s most important psychological consequence, and that it accounts for many and perhaps most of their findings. The point might be right, but stress can occur in the absence of scarcity, and scarcity can occupy people’s minds even if they are not particularly stressed. You might feel stress because people are treating you badly at work, and even if you are happy and stress-free, you might neglect some important matters once you are focused and working contentedly in your “tunnel.” (Some professional athletes do not feel a lot of stress during pressure situations, but they are certainly attending to the task at hand.) It would have been illuminating for Mullainathan and Shafir to offer a detailed discussion of the effects of stress as such, and of the relationship between those effects and their findings, but they are right to say that their topic is a different one.

Mullainathan and Shafir are concerned with those forms of scarcity that produce a kind of intense focus (and in extreme cases, obsessiveness) that makes it difficult or even impossible to attend to other matters. In their account, scarcity leads to particular psychological states, which have behavioral consequences. There is a lot of truth in this account, but I think that it might benefit from greater nuance. Scarcity, as such, is not necessary for those psychological states to occur, and in some cases, it is not sufficient.

Our minds are often occupied by problems that are not naturally seen as ones of scarcity. Perhaps we can say that if John is desperately trying to get time and attention from his romantic partner Jane, John is “Jane-poor.” Perhaps we can say that someone who is struggling with cancer, and can think of little else, is “health-poor.” But it might not be so illuminating to apply the term “scarcity” to a pilot struggling with a poorly engineered cockpit, or a mother who is feeling overwhelmed because her child is failing in school, or a novelist who is entirely absorbed in the task of completing her book, or a political activist who cannot stop thinking about a terrible tragedy in some part of the world. Minds can be occupied in the absence of scarcity.

Is scarcity sufficient to produce a form of tunneling? In cases of real desperation, as with extreme thirst or hunger, it almost certainly is. But some forms of scarcity do not have that effect. The psychological consequences that concern Mullainathan and Shafir need not occur merely because people are poor or busy, or because they have few friends. Unless they are at the very edge of subsistence, people without much money are able to think about a wide range of things; their minds need not be occupied by their economic status. So too, people who are single, or who have few friends, need not be preoccupied by that fact. Some people are doing fine on their own. The association between scarcity, taken as a matter of fact, and “tunneling” varies greatly across people and situations.

Nonetheless, Mullainathan and Shafir are correct to say that in its many forms, scarcity tends to have a series of unfortunate psychological consequences, and that those consequences can seriously disrupt not only people’s performance, but also the very quality of their lives. They are also right to say that some of the most harmful effects of scarcity can be greatly reduced by reforms that simplify tasks and make greater use of automatic solutions. In Washington, D.C., policymakers think a lot about the limits of “bandwidth” when they decide whether to take on new projects. It is not too much to ask them to do the same thing in deciding what kinds of projects to impose on the rest of us.

  1. *

    Susan Parker, “Esther Duflo Explains Why She Believes Randomized Controlled Trials Are So Vital,” Center for Effective Philanthropy Blog, June 23, 2011. 

  • Email
  • Print