What Book Changed Your Mind – More from the 4th Floor

Following the lead of the Chronicle of Higher Educationwe asked the scholars on the floor of JRC to consider which book published in the last 30 years most changed their minds. Today we add a few more books to the list:

Dr. Anne Klejment – Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness

Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk that lives in exile in France. I first read the book many years ago when I was in grad school and studying the Vietnam War and resistance to the war.  He taught simple practices that urged me to pay attention to the present moment.  I multi task poorly so I needed to absorb his ideas.  Nhat Hanh convinced me to forget about trying to do a zillion things at one time and to focus on just one.  During difficult times, I keep returning to Nhat Hanh’s teachings in this book and in some of his others.

Dr. Will Cavert – Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

In the opening scene of Dickens’ Christmas Carol we learn about Scrooge’s miserliness and Bob Cratchit’s poverty through the humble example of the fireplace. Scrooge’s fire was “very small,” but Cratchit’s was “so very much smaller that it looked like one coal.” Cratchit, pathetically, was reduced to warming his busy hands over a meager candle flame.

Cratchit’s story is set in London of the 1840s, but coal burning was a crucial aspect of life in Britain’s capital for 250 years before that. During the years that I have researched coal burning and coal smoke I have encountered many people who, like Cratchit, claimed to be cold and miserable, but who, unlike Cratchit, did not suffer quietly. Londoners of the 17th and 18th century complained that when fuel prices were too high they must certainly freeze, starve, and die. Many elites feared that such moments would cause rebellions. But how could I make sense of such claims? High fuel prices are frustrating, certainly, but could they really lead to such desperation? I struggled for ways to understand how exactly high coal prices could matter so very much to London’s poor people.

The book that changed my thinking about this question, and about much else, is Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, by economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir. They describe a series of experiments that show that under conditions of scarcity people’s cognitive capacities adjust: they focus on immediate goals, they ignore the long-term future, they concentrate on what they really need right now. Poor people really do, they argue, think differently. But that’s not because poor people are stupid, but rather because they are smart. Focusing on immediate needs is a very good survival strategy for people who barely scrape by, when tomorrow is uncertain and need is immediate. But such strategies have devastating long-term consequences, from missed opportunities to debt to lack of education. The authors try to convince a non-poor reader of their case by showing how these cognitive changes affect everyone under conditions of scarcity. Middle-class people quickly think differently when they undergo scarcities, even in short and simple experiments. It’s not that poor people aren’t as smart as rich people, but rather the opposite: the experience of scarcity changes how people think.

For me, this helped explain how seriously poor people might suffer in London when coal prices doubled or tripled in the middle of winter, as well as how desperate they might be to avoid the devastating consequences of even a brief price rise. Scarcity’s authors have different goals: to use the methods of the social scientists to inform social policy that responds to the real experiences and needs of the poor.

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