Sympathy, empathy and scarce attention

Last night I attended a fascinating lecture by Sendil Mullainathan on his book with Eldar Shafir, [amazon_link id=”0141049197″ target=”_blank” ]Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough[/amazon_link]. I haven’t read it yet but will certainly do so now.

[amazon_image id=”0141049197″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough[/amazon_image]

The book has been widely reviewed so the main argument is probably well known: people who do not have enough money have their attention focused on immediate problems, to the detriment of thinking about the consequences of short-term actions. The future in general is outside the tunnel of what they have the capacity to pay attention to. “Cognitive bandwidth is a fixed resource.” A lot gets used up by attending to urgent, day-to-day financial problems and needs – about which, slightly paradoxically, the people in this situation are ultra-rational, and very focused on the most cost-efficient decision.

The scale of the effect of this attentional tunneling on the quality of other decisions is large – almost as big as not having slept at all at night. All the time. And the decisions adversely affected cover all aspects of life, not just financial choices like whether or not to take out that pay day loan: how to parent, whether to keep up a course of medicine, and so on.

There are other kinds of scarcity that create the same kind of tunnel vision – including time scarcity. Prof Mullainathan drew this analogy, saying he’d tried it on hedge fund managers to see if it helped them understand the psychology of poverty. Someone with no money opting for a payday loan is like someone with no time not having time to do a piece of paperwork and ending up spending more time sorting out the resulting hassle. However, he added: “Different forms of scarcity have different optionality. Poverty is relentless. I can’t decide to change my poverty-life balance.”

The next question of course is what conclusions to draw from the insight about scarcity (of money) gobbling up people’s cognitive bandwidth. One conclusion is that expecting people on low incomes to fill out long forms to get benefits – or do anything – is a regressive attentional tax. Just as the cockpit of a plane is designed and engineered to be as fault-tolerant as possible, we should do the same with any engagement between people and government (or businesses, or school…..). Another that occurs to me is whether it’s possible to design some simple financial planning aids or reminders.

Interestingly, Prof Mullainathan said: “People who care about poverty tend to feel sympathy. But sympathy is a distancing emotion. We need to feel empathy.” It reminded me of Julia Unwin’s excellent book [amazon_link id=”B00SLWGUH6″ target=”_blank” ]Why Fight Poverty?[/amazon_link], which is exactly about the emotional reaction we have to poverty and why that actually makes it harder for well-meaning policy people to do anything about it.

[amazon_image id=”B00I124BLS” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Fight Poverty? (Perspectives)[/amazon_image]


5 thoughts on “Sympathy, empathy and scarce attention

  1. Pingback: Sympathy, empathy and scarce attention | Homines Economici

  2. Have you heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiments which test the delayed gratification ability of children by seeing if they’d wait for 2 marshmallows rather than 1 immediately? Delayed gratification at this age was linked to better outcomes later in life

    I mention this just to point out the obvious point that ‘tunnel vision’ can cause poverty as well as poverty causing tunnel vision.

    It would be interesting to see an experiment where poor people with scarce attention were suddenly given more money to see if it widened their cognitive bandwidth, or whether that limitation was more ingrained.

    Great post by the way. A bit more empathy (and humility) would go a long way to improving politics.

    • @Steve my hunch is that the limitation is more ingrained. I may be wrong as it is just a hunch. If we study people who were in abject poverty and got out of it, we might see that that they were able to take some irrational decisions and envision something; based on something irrational in short-term but rational in the long-term. So, I just came with the idea that after this start-up wave is over, the next wave should be teaching/training poor people to think somewhat irrationally. This may get hoards of people get rid of tunnel vision.

    • Read the book. Poor farmers who get a chunk of money after harvest do have increased bandwidth. Undoubtedly innate differences play a role, but the book is very good with ruling out alternative explanations for effects seen.

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