Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Stress & Brain Scarcity

NPR has been having a good series the last couple weeks on stress, and I particularly liked a story a couple days ago (

"When you're very lonely, or when you're hungry, or when you're poor, a large portion of the day is spent entertaining thoughts related to the source of your scarcity. If you're lonely, you spend a big part of the day worrying about how to make social connections, which is actually distracting you from other things." And if you're poor, you worry about money. Constantly.

And they referenced this older story (


Let's hear now about a new book that explores a major source of stress. The book is called "Scarcity," and it's a look at what happens to us when we're pressured with too little time or too little money. The authors say scarcity actually changes how we think. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Each September, the state of Massachusetts asks one thing from "Scarcity" author and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan: to renew his car inspection sticker. And each year, this recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award does the same thing. He's really busy so on each day leading up to the expiration of the sticker, he tells himself he'll attend to it the next day.

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN: One more day of delay - I mean, what's the big deal?

VEDANTAM: Pretty soon, Mullainathan finds himself driving around Boston with an expired sticker.

MULLAINATHAN: The sticker is three months expired and now, you're doing all sorts of stuff; like, you're driving down the street - oh, look, there's a cop. I'd better make a right turn so he doesn't see my expired sticker.

VEDANTAM: Turning the wrong way makes Mullainathan late for a meeting, or late for class. Now, he has to spend time fixing the mistake, rescheduling meetings with students, playing catch-up. His next day gets even busier. Now, he definitely doesn't have time to fix that sticker.

MULLAINATHAN: I do this constantly. Right now, I've got a meeting to get to. I don't have the time to replace the sticker whereas the truth is, the enormous amount of distortions I've now made for the last three months because of the stupid sticker, add up to five times as much time as I would've spent just going and having it fixed.

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