Friends of the Behavioral Economics Club, this week we present the paper “Behavioral economics and coping-related drinking motives in trauma exposed drinkers: Implications for the self-medication hypothesis” by Luciano, M. T.; Acuff, S. F.; McDevitt-Murphy, M. E. and Murphy, J. G. (2021), in which authors apply the point of view of behavioral economics to investigate why people that have suffered traumatic experiences have a higher tendency to use alcohol to cope with them.

In the paper we presented last week we saw how important it is to look for explanations and solutions to help when it comes about addictions, and plus, how behavioral economics can be used in order to that.

This does not surprise us, because, as we already know, behavioral economics is a discipline that comes from economy and psychology.

Authors of this paper are aware of this and wonder how behavioral economics can help understand complex behaviors as addictions. Particularly, alcohol abuse as a method to cope with traumatic experiences.

Previous investigations have shown that people that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder endorse higher levels of coping-related drinking motives when compared to trauma-exposed individuals without this mental illness.

This suggests that alcohol consumption may vary according to the stress and anxiety felted by individuals.

Authors mention the called “self-medication hypothesis”. This posits that alcohol is used as an avoidant coping mechanism when faced with psychological symptoms or other subjective states of distress.

Nevertheless, this hypothesis does not explore many factors that can also influence or modify the consumption, as the presence of alcohol-free reinforcers in one’s environment, changes in the economic value of alcohol or the devaluation of the future.

From behavioral economics’ point of view, alcohol misuse is considered a reinforcer pathology that develops as a result of a persistently high valuation for alcohol, and a lack or deficit in substance-free activities available in the environment or personal context.

Behavioral economics uses concepts such as value of alcohol and the effect of reward delay on the decision-making process. Therefore, authors recommend exploring these factors among people exposed to trauma with psychological pathologies, particularly, individuals that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

For instance, heavy drinkers with symptoms of stress and/or depression report greater alcohol demand.

Some previous studies have found that coping-related drinking motives may partially explain the relation between alcohol demand and alcohol consumption problems. However, this has not been studied according to behavioral economics’ concepts and point of view.

Authors comment they want to achieve two purposes with this studio.

Former, explore how behavioral economics’ constructs (such as access to environmental reward, delayed reward discounting, consideration of future consequences or alcohol demand) are related to alcohol problems in a sample of trauma-exposed adults.

Latter, evaluate if these constructs can explain additional variance in alcohol problems above and beyond coping-related drinking motives.

Authors gathered a total of 91 participants, which answered a series of questionnaires related to events lived in the past, alcohol consumption and emotion management. After that, results were analyzed.

In the sample, 43% of participants endorsed moderate levels of depression and anxiety; while 52,7% of them referred extremely severe problems of this kind.

According to the obtained results, authors comment that individuals with a trauma history may experience alcohol problems, in part, because they tend to be more focused on the present and devalue the future and its outcomes.

This study suggests that drinking-to-cope is an important consideration in understanding why trauma-exposed individuals often develop harmful patterns, like alcohol use, and that behavioral economics may shed additional light on this problem.

These patterns of behavior may effectively reduce the availability of substance-free rewarding stimuli and may shift the perceived relative value of prosocial and positive activities.

Thus, these individuals are at risk of experiencing less overall reward from prosocial alternatives that require engagement with the environment and, instead, lead them to engage in impulsive behaviors, such as alcohol abuse.

Some limitations exist in this study. Authors point out that their interpretation of the findings could be stronger if they had more assurance that all the individuals in their sample had symptoms that they could potentially use alcohol to cope with.

Authors comment how important is to keep investigating about alcohol abuse and addictions and how beneficial it would be to do it following behavioral economics. This would help to understand how the experienced trauma affects negatively to our lives.

If you want to know more about Behavioral Economics and how to apply it to human behavior, take a look to our Certificate in Behavioral Economics, a formative program, in English or Spanish, 100% online and certified by Heritage University (USA). Now, with discounts for members of this club.


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