Friends of the Behavioral Economics Blog, this week we present the paper “Behavioral Economic applications in the assessment, prevention, and psychological treatment of addictions”, by González-Roz, A.; Secades-Villa, R.; Martínez-Loredo, V. and Fernández-Hermida, J. R. (2020), in which authors try to bring the benefits of using behavioral economics’ methods in the assessment, prevention and psychological treatment of addictions closer to the public.

Addictions is a very important topic that worries psychologists all over the world, due to the severity of their consequences in people’s lives.

As we already know, behavioral economics is a hybrid discipline that combines principles of economics and psychology to explain human behavior, and to clarify how human beings make decisions and what factors influence their preferences.

Besides, behavioral economics is based on the idea that human decisions and choices are made in contexts of limited rationality. Namely, a variety of psychological factors, as emotions or attentional biases, come into play and alter the outcomes predicted.

Bearing this in mind, authors of this paper try to transmit what the benefits of using the behavioral economics’ point of view on assessment, prevention and psychological treatment of addictions.

A quick example of behavioral economics applied to addictions would be the following one.

A person with alcohol use disorder will have a high demand for alcohol at the expense of the personal and economic costs associated with the behavior, such as deterioration of social relationships or losing her/his savings. Thus, increasing the economic and personal price, and the opportunity cost, losing reinforcements, a proportional decrease in demand will be favored.

For instance, it has been observed that higher levels of demand and impulsive decision-making are associated with greater severity of substance addiction, both legal (alcohol or tobacco) and illegal (cannabis or opiates).

A very interesting concept is the called “environmental prevention”. This accurately reflects the application in practice of the behavioral economics’ principles in the field of addictions.

Its aim is to limit the availability of opportunities for unhealthy or risky behaviors, as using drugs or alcohol, or to promote the availability of healthy behaviors.

This would be done by changing the physical, economic or legal context that influence behavior.

Moreover, we all know that substance use prevention programs are more effective when they are accompanied by social and legal norms that decrease social acceptance, supply, and restrict accessibility to these substances.

An example of restriction applied to addictions is seen in Norway. In this country, access to slot machines requires the use of a personal card, which increases the costs associated with gambling.

How? This card gives personal identification, minimum age for gambling, limits on losses, etcetera.

In this way, you still can play, but the costs increase, so it is possible that somebody thinks twice if he/she really wants to use these machines.

Preventive measures linked to behavioral economics also involve increasing the availability (or reducing the costs) of alternatives to drug abuse or other addictions. For instance, alternative leisure programs or volunteering.

Additional measures related to prevention involve the development of campaigns to increase the social costs associated with the use of substances, in particular, alcohol and cannabis, by reducing social acceptance or increasing the stigma.

In this regard, prevention campaigns should be specifically aimed at certain target groups, providing clear, credible and evidence-based information.

Regarding psychological treatment, the principles of behavioral economics have had great influence on the development of treatments aimed at increasing the price of substances.

Motivational interventions that promote awareness of the costs and consequences of alcohol and drug abuse also fit into the assumptions of behavioral economics.

To sum up, the application of behavioral economics in assessment, prevention and psychological treatment of addictions offers many benefits.

It allows us to formulate an explanation of que acquisition, maintenance and abandonment of drug dependencies and other addictive behaviors. In psychological assessment it allows us to characterize profiles of consumers or people at risk of become consumers, etcetera.

When it comes psychological treatment, authors say, we should promote alternative behaviors and focus the use of drugs or other substances as a choice that, eventually, will cost great personal and economic losses.

Authors recommend keeping investigating about behavioral economics’ application in this area because they consider, according to empirical studies, that would be a useful method to improve assessment, prevention and psychological treatment of addictions.

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