Scarcity: Focusing and Tunneling

After a long hiatus, we will be discussing Scarcity by Sendil Mullainthan and Eldar Shafir once again. In this post we will be looking at chapter 1, titled Focusing and Tunneling. This chapter discusses the benefits of scarcity and how much it costs to be in a situation with scarcity.

One of the main points made in the chapter is about how people generally become more productive when they face scarcity from a time point of view. One of the examples used in the book is during meetings. Meetings are generally unfocused for the first half or so, and the participants usually wasting time. There comes a point where they have a midcourse correction.

[The participants] hammer out their disagreements, concentrate on the essential details and leave the rest aside. The second half of the meeting nearly always produces more tangible progress.

Mullainthan and Shafir further outline the point:

Once the lack of time becomes apparent, we focus. This happens even when we are working alone. Picture yourself writing a book. Imagine a chapter you are working on is due in several weeks. You sit down to write. After a few sentences, you remember an e-mail that needs attention. When you open your in-box, you see other e-mails that require a response. Before you know it, half an hour has passed and you’re still on e-mail.

I, for one, can certainly relate to this excerpt. It’s easy to check your phone for five minutes when you are writing an essay, go on Twitter, see a video and then watch it and go on to watch the suggested videos after that. I have been in that situation and understand when the time constraint comes in you change your pace of work.

Scarcity involving time has plenty of examples and Mullainthan and Shafir discuss multiple of them–including in marketing.

In large-scale marketing experiments, some customers are mailed a coupon with an expiration date, while others are mailed a similar coupon that does not expire. Despite being valid for a longer period of time, the coupons with no expiration date are less likely to be used. Without the scarcity of time, the coupon does not draw focus and may even be forgotten.

The fact of the matter is, the less time you have, the more work you will tend to get done. This also applies to pleasure as you will tend to be conservative with your resources as you have less and less of them. Mullainthan and Shafir call this the focus dividend.

We are less liberal with the toothpaste as the tube starts to run empty. In a box of expensive chocolates, we savor (and hoard) the last ones. We run around on the last days of a vacation to see every sight.

An important aspect of scarcity that they discuss in this chapter is the idea of tunneling. Tunneling is when lack of time gets in the way of focusing on every aspect of something going on. An example that the authors use is working on a project instead of going to the gym because of a time constraint.

The tunnel magnifies the costs–less time for your project now–and minimizes the benefits–those distant long-term health benefits appear much less urgent.

Tunneling connects to a different idea brought up in the book–goal inhibition.

Focusing on something that matters to you makes you less able to thing about other things you care about.

This is a valid point that I have been through myself and leads to the next point that the book discusses.

Inhibition is  the reason for both benefits of scarcity (the focus dividend) and the costs of scarcity. Inhibiting distractions allows you to focus.

The costs of goal inhibition exist as well, as we skip the other events that we could be doing. These events could impact us in the long-term and the event that is happening in the short-term are simply more important because of the time scarcity. This chapter allowed us to evaluate a lot of new terms related to scarcity and we will be learning a lot more as the posts continue on Scarcity. Read along with us!




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