Friends of the Behavioral Economics Club, this week we present the paper “Search for solutions, learning, simulation, and choice processes in suicidal behavior” by Dombrovski, A. and Hallquist, M. H. (2021), in which authors make a revision about the decision making process and the solutions to the suicidal behavior considering the point of view of behavioral economics.

Suicide is one of the most important and significant causes of death in recent years, especially among young population. Every day thousands of people decide to carry out suicidal behaviors and, sadly, end their lives, which is an irreparable loss.

From the scientific point of view of behavioral economics, this can be seen as an unfortunate result in decision-making processes.

But before commenting the article, we think it is convenient to explain what suicide is. It would be the act deliberately initiated and carried out by a particular person, with full knowledge of its fatal outcome.

There is a series of risk factors, such as being male, suffering from pathologies (depression, psychosis, personality disorders or addictions), having a family history of suicidal behavior, having suffered childhood trauma, physical illnesses and cognitive deficits.

From a psychological point of view, many explanations have been given for this behavior. For example, the trap and escape frameworks, the interpersonal theory, the motivational-volitional theory, or the three-step theory. They all share a vision of suicide as an escape from intolerable emotional states.

However, most of the factors involved in all theories are specific constructs of suicide or depression and there is a lack of an external explanatory framework. In other words, explanations of the mechanisms underlying the suicidal process are lacking and, therefore, new perspectives are needed.

That is why authors propose in the article that formal learning theory and decision neuroscience can help us to understand the cognitive and decision processes that are involved in this behavior.

Within the suicide risk mechanisms, two personality characteristics appear: neuroticism and impulsivity. Neuroticism would be a tendency to experience frequent negative emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety, symptoms that are called “internalizing”. On the other hand, impulsivity is an important component of the “externalizing” spectrum, which includes symptoms such as substance abuse or violence.

Studies on the subject are almost always based on self-report methods, such as dimensional surveys. The challenge is that internalizing and externalizing are broad and heterogeneous constructs that, when evaluated in this way, provide information that is not too relevant.

It would be more interesting to know about the personality of the individual so that it can tell us something about how he will respond to circumstances that could be part of the progression towards a suicidal behavior.

Authors are interested in studying cognitive limitations because they could explain people’s inability to consider the alternatives and consequences of suicide, due to cognitive control influences decision making.

For example, those who attempt suicide show deficits in autobiographical and long-term memory, but not short-term. This may jeopardize the generation of alternative choices and the memory-based simulations that evaluate them.

In summary, people who engage in suicidal behaviors may show deficits in global cognitive performance, memory, and cognitive control beyond what is expected in psychopathology, but the stages of the suicidal process to which these deficits may contribute remain unclear.

On the other hand, the suicidal process can be seen from the decision theory. People do not normally admit suicide as an option when they face life’s challenges. But then, the person experiences a great crisis that threatens her /his objectives and generates uncertainty, a crisis that generates a sense of urgency to solve immediately the problems.

But how can suicide be selected over the alternatives in a crisis? When it comes about choosing in suicidal behavior, most people cannot accurately predict how the crisis will unfold, and their estimates of the relative value of suicide versus alternatives end up being inconsistent with their interests.

Furthermore, escape theories emphasize intense negative affective states, which make a challenging situation feel catastrophic.

The suicidal crisis is marked by a sense of temporary pressure, triggered by imminent threats. Since the number of items selected in the set of considerations is limited by time and cognitive resources, fewer alternatives are included, because the person is under urgent pressure. And it may even be because his/her cognitive ability is being diminished.

Besides, there is the aspect of cognitive overload in suicidal crises. Patients generally feel lost, and the crisis intensifies when the cognitive demands exceed the capacity of each person to manage it. The need of evaluating many options at once due to uncertainty, degrades the quality of decision making.

Therefore, the authors note that it would be interesting for future studies to examine how people vulnerable to suicidal behavior deal with information overload and limitations such as time pressure.

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.

Friends of the Behavioral Economics Blog, this week we present the paper “Depression and financial planning horizon”, by Choung, Y.; Chatterjee, S. and Pak, T. Y. (2022), in which authors carry out a study with people from different generations to understand how suffering from depression affects the decisions we make in the financial context. 

Recent observations and studies have pointed, in recent years, to altered reward processing in people living with depression, considering that hopelessness is part of the clinical picture of the disease.

Depressed mood is often also associated with a lack of positive expectations, which may affect people’s motivation to invest in the future. 

That is, empirical evidence suggests that people with depression often do not accept future rewards compared to people without mental health difficulties.

Of these future rewards, most are financial. And one way to measure and organize personal finances is the so-called “financial planning horizon.” That is, the prospective period according to which people organize their savings and spending programs. An example of this is taking out a retirement plan, which would indicate a very broad and long financial planning horizon over time.

While most people look to the future with a certain amount of optimism, this is often not the case for people with depression. And because studies consider that a large number of factors affect the financial planning horizon, such as, for example, individual health or personality, authors found it interesting to investigate the role of depression in this context.

Approximately 17.3 million adults in the United States have experienced one or more major depressive episodes since 2017. Moreover, the number of depressed adults who reported unmet needs in the treatment of their illness has been progressively increasing over the past 10 years in that same territory.  

Given the increasing prevalence of depression and its potential economic consequences, there is a growing need to understand how the symptoms of this illness affect financial decision making. 

The most recent evidence suggests that depressive symptomatology is related to temporal discounting and risk aversion. That is, on the one hand, it is possible that depression influences the time frame in which people schedule their savings and spending, because they may prefer immediate rewards to those for which there is a wait; and on the other hand, depression may influence people’s propensity to make risky decisions because it alters their personality traits and behavior. That is this issue that interests the authors and on which they try to shed light. 

Some articles on the subject show that there are a number of changes in time preferences for rewards after experiencing traumatic experiences such as natural disasters or armed conflicts. These events result in stress, which, in general, is an important precursor of depression.

To study all these ideas, authors used a sample composed of five different cohorts of people born between 1931 and 1959. A series of scientifically valid scales common in psychology were used to assess depressive symptoms. In addition, questions related to the financial area were asked.

Authors’ results suggest that people with depression are more likely to focus their financial planning on the short term. Moreover, it appears that these differences in relation to the rest of the population were driven not only by depression, but also by pessimism, poor perceived control, smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise….

Overall, the results point to a strong association between depressive symptoms and a shorter financial planning horizon. This may be explained by the pessimistic outlook of those living with this disease, as well as by the underestimation of the years that the ill person considers he or she has left to live, which is further reduced if depression is accompanied by deteriorating physical health or cognitive losses. 

Authors hope that further studies on depression and how it affects the normal development of life will be carried out, with the aim of intervening and improving the negative symptoms. 

For example, they propose the creation of affordable financial planning services, so that anyone can access them and, thus, make it easier for everyone to manage their finances in a healthy and forward-looking way. 

If you want to know more about Behavioral Economics and how to apply it to human behavior, take a look to our Master of Science in Behavioral Economics, a 100% online program that you can take in Spanish or English. Ask us about our grants!

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.

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.

Friends of the Behavioral Economics Club, this week we present the paper “Evolutionary benefits of personality traits when facing workplace bullying” by Daderman, A. M. and Basinska, B. A. (2021), in which authors study, following the behavioral economics’ perspective, whether personality traits that benefit facing workplace bullying exist.

The bullying phenomena is known by everybody, due to its frightening consequences observed in children and young people and how they suffer in their schools.

Nevertheless, it is a situation that also appears in workplaces and affects the well-being, life quality and mental health of grown-ups. It is estimated that between 2 and 30% of working people worldwide are targets of workplace bullying.

But, what is workplace bullying, exactly?

It occurs when an employee, without the possibility to control the situation, is exposed to frequent and prolonged escalation of destructive acts and attitudes, such as harassment, offensiveness, and social exclusion which negatively and persistently affect his or her work.

Suffering this kind of work environment has been significantly related to mental health problems like anxiety or depression, poor welfare (for instance, low quality of life or poor sleep) and physical ill health such as headache.

Due to the importance and impact of this phenomena, more and more researchers invest their time and resources in study how it affects people, how to prevent it, and other related aspects.

Authors of this paper wonder, from the behavioral economics’ perspective, whether personality traits that benefit facing workplace bullying exist.

Namely, whether personality traits that protect people from this phenomenon exist, or, from an evolutionary prism, that allow adaptation to workplace bullying.

In order to that, authors carried out a study with a total of 316 participants. Personality questionnaires were given to them and there were analyzed anonymously.

The results showed that, as it was hypothesized by authors, there are two personality traits that make easier to face workplace bullying. These are openness and Machiavellianism.

People who are high in openness are more open to varying and new experiences, and are more creative and flexible, broad-minded, and curious, which transforms the experience of uncomfortable situations with other people from being frightening to being challenging.

Thus, possessing high values of openness was probably a valuable trait for our ancestors when managing more negative acts and behavior from others.

Moreover, prior studies suggest that people high in openness have greater stress resilience, and better stress regulation compared to people low in openness. Consequently, the former can use a wider range of coping repertoire, which can help them apply coping strategies more effectively in a hostile work environment.

On the other hand, there’s Machiavellianism. It is supposed that and employee high in Machiavellianism has an inherent, evolution-related power that helps develop, and effectively use, different contacts and coalitions for their own goals. Even when they are criticized, rejected or otherwise attacked.

When it comes about facing workplace bullying, Machiavellians may use their superficial charm in order to overcome it.

These people are experts in effective tactics for managing ruthless and unscrupulous persons. Besides, some of their aims would be to keep power and a good reputation.

It is important to remind that workplace bullying affects negatively to self-esteem and self-concept. Thus, having a strong belief in one’s own qualities as a natural leader, as Machiavellians do, being strategically minded and capable of building coalitions, are some advantages that allow to face a hostile work environment.

Plus, this kind of people have a competitive interpersonal style that helps them to be confident.

It is also important to see this personality trait not only as socially aversive (due to it being part of the Dark Triad), but also as beneficial for health-related overcoming of negative acts by co-workers in today’s tough workplace environments.

A limitation that exists in this study, is that questionnaires used were abbreviated versions of the original ones. That is why appears the possibility of some traits not being correctly scored.

Future research should follow this way, focus on correct this limitation and give to the participants the original questionnaires in order to be completely rigorous.

Despite this minor limitation, authors conclude that, as they thought, from an evolutionary perspective and behavioral economics’ point of view, high levels of some personality traits probably present adaptative advantages. Possessing openness and Machiavellianism may be an adaptative evolutionary development resulting in natural protective benefits for employees facing bullying in the workplace.

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.

Behavioral Economics Blog