Monday, October 28, 2013

Scarcity, Or, Should I Nap or Work Out?

This morning, after I returned home from taking my daughter to school, I faced a small dilemma.  For the past several days I've been promising myself that today would be the day I'd start working out on our new treadmill.  But also, I have a cold that won't go away, and even though I slept well I was still really, really tired.  Workout or nap?  Workout or nap?

Then it occurred to me:  I have plenty of time.  I could do both.

You can send me that Genius award now.  I've earned it.

Anyway, I took a nap, and now I'm working, and after lunch, when I tend to feel sleepy again, I'll work out.  And the whole reason I'm bringing all of this up is to lead into telling you about a brilliant book I read this weekend:  Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.  It's by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, an economist/psychologist combo that also formed ideas42, a non-profit organization that studies what actually works to combat poverty.

The premise of Scarcity is that when humans feel an area of lack in their lives--whether financial, emotional, or temporal--their brains function less well.  They focus on what they're lacking to the detriment of both other parts of their lives, and the part that's lacking.  They're more impulsive.  They make worse decisions.  They're more easily overwhelmed. 

Two things especially intrigued me.  The first is that these effects were independent of intelligence, education level, and other variables.  In one interesting experiment, researchers recruited a bunch of Princeton undergrads to play games of Family Feud--only the groups were manipulated so that some of them were artificially "poor" and some were "rich."  "Poor" and "rich" had no meaning outside the bounds of this very simple game, all the players were smart and well-educated, and yet the "poor" groups consisently under-performed the "rich" groups.

In other words, sometimes people aren't poor because they make bad decisions.  Sometimes they make bad decisions because they're poor.

The other is that this suggests for a number of our clients, the work we're doing at Faith in Action is very effective.  When we pay $100 toward someone's light bill because their car broke down and they had to pay to repair it (and so can't pay for the lights), we're alleviating both a financial problem and a mental one.  Because we can provide that bit of slack to our clients, we may be making them better parents, better employees, and better decision-makers overall.  At FIA we're always trying to make a real difference in the lives of our clients, and this book suggests to me that what we're doing is less of a band-aid and more of a real solution than we feared.

Now I'm off to write about obelisks.  Carry on.