Why do we make 'bad' decisions? And what does the science say?

Hi all, 

Join us on Monday, August 19th as we begin our discussion on the scarcity mindset. Sarah Goldammer is a training specialist with the Southern Illinois University --Edwardsville Professional Development Center. Trained as a special education teacher, Sarah has extensive experience in adult education. She has been facilitating trainings on the Scarcity Mindset over the last year and has researched the topic extensively. Ester Prins is a Professor of Adult Education at Penn State and Co-Director for the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy and Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy. 

To prepare for the discussion, check out Hidden Brain's podcase with Brandy Drew's story. Her story is something we can all relate to - how someone is overwhelmed and struggling to 'do everything' had her life spiral. Then, take some time to review How Poverty and Cognitive Biases Can Impact Decisions and Action

Share any questions you may have for our expert pannel and we will begin our discussion Monday morning. 

Kathy Tracey


Good morning, Welcome to our discussion on the scarcity mindset. I'd like to begin by asking our guests to explain a bit about scarcity. What is this mindset and how does it impact the decision making process? Specifically, what does this mean for our adult learners? As we get started, what questions do you have for our guests? Sincerely, Kathy Tracey

Thanks to Kathy for bringing this important topic up for discussion! Let me start off with a brief answer to Kathy’s question and perhaps that will lead to more questions and a rich discussion. Much of my influence has been from the book, Scarcity—The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Their backgrounds are from economics and psychology respectively which provides a unique combo of thought and research. I’ve been an educator for 30 years and in adult education for 19. This research provided SO much light for me in thinking about my students AND about myself.

I’ve always known I struggle with good decisions when I am hungry (scarce on food) or tired (scare on sleep). But! These are temporary situations. Think about when the scarcity is ongoing. This leads to a change in mindset, not just a temporary sketchy choice. I love thinking about scarcity in terms that every one of us understands because that ensures the conversation is not about “those people” rather it’s about ALL of us. We are all affected by scarcity at some point. All of us make choices differently based on our perspective at the time of the choice. Understanding these concepts leads us to understanding ourselves and our students in ways that can influence how we provide services and how we interact with those we serve.

Sarah, I love how you explain that scarcity mindsets impact is all and is not aligned with a deficit philosophy. We know that everyone struggles with mental bandwidth at times, and that struggle may lead to choices that make sense at the time, but are not always in our long term best interest. I'm looking forward to thoughts on this topic. Kathy

Hello Sarah, Esther, Kathy and all, Thanks for sharing your expertise with us on LINCS, Esther and Sarah. Kathy affirms the idea that a scarcity mindset is not aligned with the deficit perspective. I'd like to hear more about the differences between a deficit perspective and scarcity mindset. 

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Hi, Susan. That's a great question. The scarcity mindset is the antithesis of a deficit perspective. The latter places blame on individual traits and characteristics (e.g., lack of motivation). The scarcity mindset attributes bad decision making to the context of scarcity, not the individual. This is illustrated by the research with sugar cane farmers that I posted previously: the same farmers performed better on cognitive tests after they had gotten paid for the harvest and performed worse before the harvest, when they had little or no money. The only thing that changed was the context (having money or not). The Scarcity authors are adamant about this point: when faced with scarcity (of time, food, money, etc.), everyone makes bad decisions and suffers cognitive consequences. 

I've re-posted some exemplary quotations on this topic from the book:

“We are emphatically not saying that poor people have less bandwidth. Quite the opposite. We are saying that all people, if they were poor, would have less effective bandwidth” (p. 66).

“Rather than a personal trait,” the scarcity mindset “is the outcome of environmental conditions brought about by scarcity itself, conditions that can often be managed” (p. 145).

Consequently, the question for us as educators is how to design programs that recognize students' limited bandwidth and free up their bandwidth. The implications are for changing program design, rather than changing adult learners by increasing their grit or motivation. 

Here are some relevant passages from the book on "fault tolerance" -- designing programs that accommodate the realities of students' lives.

"Why not look at the structure of the programs rather than the failings of the clients? If we accept that pilots can fail and that cockpits need to be wisely structured so as to inhibit those failures, why can we not do the same with the poor? Why not design programs structured to be more fault tolerant? We could ask the same question of anti-poverty programs. Consider the training programs, where absenteeism is common and dropout rates are high. What happens when, loaded and depleted, a client misses a class? What happens when her mind wanders in class? The next class becomes a lot harder. Miss one or two more classes and dropping out becomes the natural outcome, perhaps even the best option, as she really no longer understands much of what is being discussed in the class." (pp. 169-170)

"You’re exhausted and weighed down by things more proximal, and you know that even if you go [to class] you won’t absorb a thing. Now roll forward a few more weeks. By now you’ve missed another class. And when you go, you understand less than before. Eventually you decide it’s just too much right now; you’ll drop out and sign up another time, when your financial life is more together. The program you tried was not designed to be fault tolerant. It magnified your mistakes, which were predictable, and essentially pushed you out the door. But it need not be that way. Instead of insisting on no mistakes or for behavior to change, we can redesign the cockpit. Curricula can be altered, for example, so that there are modules, staggered to start at different times and to proceed in parallel. You missed a class and fell behind? Move to a parallel session running a week or two “behind” this one." (p. 170)

"As it is, training programs are built with no mistakes in mind, as if the participants are not expected or allowed to stumble. The the poor--even, or perhaps especially, when they are unemployed--have a lot going on. And much of it does not sit so well with being a student. Skipping class in a training program while you’re dealing with scarcity is not the same as playing hooky in middle school. Linear classes that must not be missed can work well for the full-time student; they do not make sense for the juggling poor. It is important to emphasize that fault tolerance is not a substitute for personal responsibility. On the contrary: fault tolerance is a way to ensure that when the poor do take it on themselves, they can improve—as so many do. Fault tolerance allows the opportunities people receive to match the effort they put in and the circumstances they face. It does not take away the need for hard work; rather, it allows hard work to yield better returns for those who are up for the challenge, just as improved levers in the cockpit allow the dedicated pilot to excel." (p. 171)


Hello Sarah and others,

I want to better understand the term "scarcity mindset" in the context of adult basic skills education.

1. Whose mindset are we talking about? The learners' mindsets or the practitioners' mindsets? Does this mean actual scarcity -- learners' poverty, program poverty, practitioners' poverty (since in our field of very limited resources some teachers live in poverty!) or does this mean the belief that one's resources are scarce? 

2. Does resources mean wealth, income, availability of particular services such as health, disease prevention, housing, affordable Internet access? What else? Does resources, in this context, include beliefs about one's ability such as confidence in being able to learn, determination to succeed, grit, and other non-cognitive skills?


David J. Rosen





Thanks for your questions and thoughts. The simple answer is "yes"! Scarcity affects our students AND our teachers. It affects decision making in the entire program. In Illinois, a few years back, we had a lack of state budget. I mean no money. I can tell you our programs started making decisions very differently. I have noticed recently those who are newer to adult ed in our state and didn't experience this first hand have a different mindset than those who are still shell shocked from the time period.

For our students, they are affected by all kinds of scarcity. Earlier today I mentioned scarcity of sleep. I have had students who simply needed more sleep. We worked out a plan to help provide them what they lacked. I realized I couldn't learn if I was too tired so how could I expect them to be "on" with lack of sleep? Meeting those students where they were and being inside their tunnel vision made all the difference for them (and for me as an instructor because I retained them in the class and in the program).

Our researchers I have referenced, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, urge us to look at our programs rather than looking at our students. How can we make simple changes that can have huge impacts. One of community colleges in Illinois was running an IET, Integrated Education and Training program, in welding. One of the small changes they made was tweaking the class schedule so the adult ed students could catch the last bus of the day in the public transportation system. It made ALL the difference. Now the students were set for success. Instead of being scarce on transportation, they could now meet the requirements of the class since they had a public transportation option.

I'm not saying every answer is that easy. By the way, they did have to convince the CTE instructor of the college that the time change was a good idea which was probably no small task. What our researchers urge (and I'm right with them) is look at the "cockpit" instead of the "pilot." page 170

Hi Sarah, and others,

Your last sentence, Sarah, "look at the 'cockpit' instead of the 'pilot.' " is a great metaphor, and brings "scarcity mindset" into sharp focus for me as an adult basic skills educator.  For example, for a digital literacy learning context, the scarcity of regular broadband Internet access from a computer and a smartphone, at both a learning center and at learners' homes, makes it difficult to learn and practice digital literacy skills needed to become digitally fluent. For an English language learning context, the scarcity of broadband Internet access makes it difficult for learners to acquire and practice English language learning skills outside class using online software programs or apps.

Anyone in this discussion: in the adult basic skills learning cockpit, what are the critical learning tools that adults, as captains of their own learning, need? From both practitioner and learner perspectives, what are the most critical learning tool scarcities?  

David J. Rosen

Hi, everyone. First of all, I'd like to recommend this book to everyone. Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives https://www.amazon.com/Scarcity-Science-Having-Defines-Lives/dp/125005611X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=scarcity&qid=1566235830&s=gateway&sr=8-1 The book is easy to read and includes fascinating research.

I first began thinking about the relevance of scarcity to adult education when I came across a summary of the Scarcity book (https://harvardmagazine.com/2015/05/the-science-of-scarcity). In terms of poverty, the authors argue that people aren't poor because they make bad decisions; they make bad decisions because they are poor. In sum, their research shows that when we are faced with scarcity (time, money) we make bad decisions. **Research has repeatedly shown that this happens to people from all walks of life.** The reason is that we have limited bandwidth: we can't attend to everything at once. So in terms of poverty, this means that when people are worrying and thinking about financial problems, they have little bandwidth (mental energy) to think about anything else, such as studying and attending class.

This research has many implications for adult educators. For now, I will highlight one: the importance of providing social supports. My colleagues' and my research on career pathways shows that providing wraparound social supports such transportation, childcare, access to income supports (e.g., food stamps, subsidized housing, other benefit programs) helps students focus on learning rather than being consumed by these financial and material problems. Here is an excerpt from an article where we discuss this topic. (See full article here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55a158b4e4b0796a90f7c371/t/5b5a26796d2a73e83d8b8d80/1532634749893/The+Resource+for+Adult+Education+Career+Pathways+Special+Edition.pdf)

Wraparound Supports and Mental Bandwidth
We propose that wraparound supports work because they expand participants’ “mental bandwidth” (Mullainathan & Eldar, 2013; Schilbach, Schofield, & Mullainathan, 2016). Our mental bandwidth is finite, and for people in poverty, thinking about and managing financial problems imposes a massive cognitive load (Schilbach et al., 2016). In field and laboratory studies, the cognitive impact of thinking about financial concerns was the equivalent of losing a night of sleep—even for people without real financial problems (Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir, & Zhao, 2013). When CP programs help students apply for food stamps, pay for transportation, obtain health insurance or childcare, or reduce debt, they increase students’ bandwidth for focusing on academics.

Our data support this interpretation. For instance, during the focus group with JARC students, a dislocated worker stated that because of the agency’s support services, "we don’t have to stress about all those actual life problems. All we have to do is concentrate on our school work….It takes a big burden and a big load off the mind when you don’t have to worry about that, and you just concentrate on the school work, which is very helpful." In his own words, this student articulated the concept of mental bandwidth: support services reduce the cognitive load of “life problems” and allow students to devote more mental energy to their studies.

Another student had a similar perspective: "They don’t give you no excuse for not being here. You’re going to get here because you get either a bus card or a gas card….I mean, you don’t got no excuse for how you don’t want to be here, because they going to help you with something. I just signed up for [health] insurance the other day. I’ve never had insurance. I didn’t even sign up for
insurance. I sat there and gave the guy my information. And then before I knew it, I was [like], oh, wow, now I got insurance!" A third student needed to get her son’s eyes checked and had been “waiting for weeks” for the insurance company to send a list of in-network doctors. She marveled that a JARC employee supplied this information in a matter of minutes.

The CWF director explained that they provide bundled support services “in order for people to be able to focus on the end goal, which is to remain in training:” "Through the relationships they build with support staff, students end up coming to us with whatever their challenges are because they know that we’ll try to figure something out for them. And that is a thing that kind of keeps them coming back.
Because they can see that it’s starting to make sense and they want to kind of stay on the training at that point because they know there are supports in place and there’s no judgment."

The students’ and director’s comments suggest that bundled support services help students cope with the tangible, non-academic problems that undermine success in education and employment. They also allow students to focus on their goals and enhance relationships with staff, thereby increasing program completion.

Scarcity of time or resources (money) forces us to “tunnel” – to focus on the most pressing concern and neglect other things. This means that we focus (consider how focused we become when faced with a looming deadline), but it also leads us to make bad decisions because we ignore things that aren’t on the immediate horizon. Research shows that tunneling is automatic and involuntary; it happens to everyone.

The scarcity mindset is not about people’s inherent qualities or characteristics, such as lack of motivation. Tunneling occurs because of the context (scarcity), not the person. The authors present a fascinating study as one piece of evidence:

“But the real test lay in the real world, Mullainathan continues. If just thinking about scarcity preoccupied subjects, what effect would real scarcity have?

The answer came from fieldwork he and his colleagues were already conducting in India. Sugarcane farmers, they discovered, get their income in one lump sum at harvest time, just once or twice a year. That meant farmers were poor during one part of the year, and flush with cash during another. Because harvests took place at different times for different farmers, researchers could rule out seasonal weather, events, and their accompanying obligations as bandwidth-usurping factors. And when the researchers conducted a study there similar to the New Jersey mall experiment, the results mirrored their original findings: the Indian farmers performed worse on Raven’s Matrices tests before their harvest, and better after they’d been paid.

The conclusion was clear, Mullainathan explains: poverty itself taxes the mind. And in the case of the Indian farmers, he adds, the data were even more convincing: unlike the New Jersey “lab” study, where subjects were compared to other people, the farmers were compared to themselves. The only variables that had changed were their financial circumstances.” (https://harvardmagazine.com/2015/05/the-science-of-scarcity)


Here are some additional quotations on this topic:

“We are emphatically not saying that poor people have less bandwidth. Quite the opposite. We are saying that all people, if they were poor, would have less effective bandwidth” (p. 66).

“Rather than a personal trait,” the scarcity mindset “is the outcome of environmental conditions brought about by scarcity itself, conditions that can often be managed” (p. 145).  


An important point is that scarcity impedes our ability to focus on other things and has a host of cognitive consequences. An “overtaxed bandwidth” leads to forgetting, reduced ability to process new information, reduced productivity, and “fewer mental resources to exert self-control” (p. 159).

“Take the idea that the poor lack certain basic skills. Rather than viewing this as an established fact, we may consider how a bandwidth tax can be one reason for this skill shortfall. Any form of skill acquisition, whether it be learning social skills or developing good spending habits, requires bandwidth. If the poor lack bandwidth, they will be disadvantaged at acquiring useful skills” (p. 162).

What can adult education programs do to “liberate” students’ bandwidth so that they can focus on learning?


Scarcity is am issue that we all face. Scarcity of time and resources. As our guests discussed, this can often pact our students and their retention. What happens when our staff are dealing with limited mental bandwidth due to their struggles with time and resources? What does this look like in our program design. Kathy


Thanks for raising this question. As we all know, we're all affected by scarcity so that means our Adult Ed instructors feel it too. This could be personally and/or professionally. Creating community among our teachers is key. Meeting each teacher where they are, understanding they have pressures and concerns is essential in building a team of educators that can band together for the good of the education community. Sharing classroom resources, standing in for each other if needed, giving an ear, being "inside their tunnel" are all components of support for our educational team. This could take the form of a mentoring program, a learning community of educators with authentic sharing, or a best practices sharing site. 

The research book I recommended this morning, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives, is a great beginning point for building a community of support. We've been talking about this research locally for awhile now and some programs have asked teachers to read the book as a basis for a book club. Pulling together to discuss this research from Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, provides a launch pad for real change. That real change could be in the Adult Ed program or it could be in the way the teachers support each other. How teachers support each other could be the actual change the program needs to support students more fully.

Friends, I want to thank you for the insightful comments from our guests and the responses to the questions posed. Please continue with your ideas and thoughts. This is a very worthwhile topic and can have direct impact on our programs and students. Thanks to Sarah and Water for their excellent research and commentary. Kathy

Thanks for this great question and thanks for the great work you do with teenagers. Obviously, what you’re asking is complex, multi-layered and the answer could vary from day to day. With that in mind, let me respond with some thoughts. I will love to hear what other educators think.

First, we teach people. That may seem obvious, but I remind myself and other educators around me of this fact nearly every day. Teaching is not something we DO to our students. Learning occurs IN our students as we walk WITH them on this educational journey. As educators, walking along side our adult students (even the teenage, nearly adult ones) is key for our students’ success and ultimately our success as teachers. Our research tells us to be effective, especially with our students experiencing scarcity, we need to be INSIDE their tunnel (think about tunnel vision). The only way to be INSIDE their tunnel is to see them as humans and know at least some of what is happening in their lives. Just to clarify, I am not suggesting we see them as victims without any consequences in life. See them as humans.

I recommend being transparent. In an earlier post, I suggested using Scarcity – the New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives as a book club pick leading to faculty discussion. I also suggest using some passages with you Adult Education students. Understanding myself in the context of scarcity has been life changing for me. Why wouldn’t I want to help my students have the same “leg up” experience. Helping our students to understand the “whys” of life is the most valuable teaching and learning experience we both can have!

Then…getting back to your teenage students, give them choices. But talk about how and why you are providing some slack in their day and giving them multiple opportunities for success. Ultimately, it’s still their choice what path to take. If, in your opinion, they make a “bad” choice, you’re there to help them think through the experience and learn. OR…and here is a big takeaway, for us as educators, possibly we just need to honor their choice as the one they believe they need to make right now even if it’s not one we would make. Especially with our young students, sometimes we plant seeds that don’t sprout for some time. We may not get to see the flowers bloom. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t done important work!

Here is another thought provoking book recommendation: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.



This is a very thought-provoking discussion.  Thank you all for expertise and resources.  I have been an educator for almost 30 years, and have spent my entire career working with struggling populations.  – struggling with academics, finances, abuse, social norms, and the list continues …..  When I began my career I quickly realized my elementary students and their families had “issues.”  When I taught middle and high school I had the same realization.  Needless to say, when I taught in corrections, the pattern continued.

However, over the past several years I have been gaining a better understanding of what “issues” are:  trauma, violence, chronic stress – which can be umbrellas for students struggling with academics, finances, abuse, social norms, and the list continues …..  So, this discussion has been another eye-opener for me.  Learning about limited bandwidth and the reason for this limitation, learning about scarcity mindset and tunneling provides me with even more background to better understand my adult education students, and why they may appear uncaring and/or irresponsible about school.

I have participated in two simulations in the past two years.  One was a reentry simulation, where I was given the identity of an individual beginning reentry after being incarcerated.  I was given a small amount of “money” and a long list of requirements to keep me from violating my probation.  My one hour was the equivalent of one day.  I was back in jail after 20 minutes.  When I observed poverty simulation, again one hour equaled one day, and the need to navigate the state agencies (without transportation or childcare), the result was failure.  N real life this failure means no basic necessities.  This was a simulation and I was bought to tears.

The terms scarcity mindset, tunneling occurred, limited bandwidth, now in retrospect, were very applicable.

Thank you, Kathy, for initiating this discussion, and many thanks to all who have participated. 


Hi everyone,

I feel so excited to participate and read all the questions and comments regarding this topic and how to use behavioral insights to improve the programs and services that we provide for students. Moving forward the discussion and thinking about how to tackle many biases that all of us have but we are not so aware of. Also, thinking about the great example of changing the cockpit to help the pilot to excel. I would like to share one story that is connected with one of the cognitive biases that we have: "reference points". I remember my teacher invited some alumni to share their stories after they finish the school program. I think it was a way to show us the positive impact that the studies have in their lives and also to motivate us to follow the same pathway. Now after reading the studies related to behavioral science and thinking how to redesign some interventions or efforts that we incorporate in our programs. I realized that this valuable intervention should be executed at the beginning of the school year and not at the end of the schools year. Because I know that these stories could be the reference point for many students and the way they can envision their future and provide them with motivation during the whole school year. So a little change even in the things that we are already doing could have a great impact on our students. Finally, I would like to share also a recommendation for some books that introduced me to this fascinating behavioral economics field (Nudge, Richard H. Thaler, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee, Influence, Cialdini).  

All the best,