The Scarcity Response Linking Poverty, Hunger, and Obesity

How can it be that Mexico has now achieved the dubious distinction of the world’s highest obesity rates for a large country, even as much of the country goes hungry? Competing cults are quick to explain this as a failure of either personal responsibility or social justice. The human response to scarcity might offer a more objective explanation.

Almost ten years ago, Adam Drewnowski and SE Specter started this conversation by publishing a much-cited analysis of the close relationship between poverty and obesity. Now, Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir offer insight into the human response to scarcity with their new book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir have assembled an impressive body of research to show that scarcity produces a distinctive pattern of behavior. All sorts of people make bad decisions under conditions of scarcity. Controlled experiments show that scarcity itself reduces capacity for making good decisions. It has little to do with character or native intelligence.

In scarcity, people focus on immediate gratification and exercise less self control. The authors say:

Our argument in this book is quite simple. Scarcity captures our attention, and this provides a narrow benefit: we do a better job of managing pressing needs. But more broadly, it costs us: we neglect other concerns, and we become less effective in the rest of life.

The scarcity effect is not so much about stress as it is about focus. Knowing this, we can develop and test smarter policies to chip away at obesity, hunger, and poverty.

Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change from pointless arguments about personal versus social responsibility?

Click here to read more in the New York Times, here and here to read publications in the journal Science by Mullainathan, Shafir, and others, here to read the study by Drenowski and Specter, and here for more information about the book by Mullainathan and Shafir.

Scarcity, photograph © Eduardo Rodriguez / flickr

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