Using Behavioral Economics to Understand Cravings in Drug Addiction

Using Behavioral Economics to Understand Cravings in Drug Addiction

Cravings are a difficult aspect of drug addiction to measure. They are subjective, tricky to define, and mystifying in their source and how they often dominate decisions of the will. Researchers know that craving is an important component of drug addiction, but the lack of tools to measure it have kept it from being studied extensively.

A new study published in the journal Addiction takes a look at cravings and the behavioral economics of drug addiction. James MacKillop, a psychologist at the University of Georgia, led the study that used a behavioral economic analysis to improve understanding of cravings.

The researchers recruited 92 university students from the Northeast. Each student identified themselves as being “heavy drinkers,” indicating that they regularly consumed at least 21 drinks per week for males and 14 per week for females.

The participants were not provided with drinks but underwent a laboratory assessment after being poured a glass of spring water and after being poured a glass of their favorite beer. The participants reported their subjective craving for alcohol and estimated how much they would drink given an increasing price scale.

When the participants had their favorite beer in front of them, they experienced a significant increase in craving for alcohol and also increased the relative value of alcohol in behavioral economic terms.

The participants indicated that they would drink more alcohol when it was listed at lower prices. They would also spend more money total on alcohol and they would continue to drink at higher prices.

Behavioral economics show how subjective desires can be translated into more objective measurements, such as the number of drinks consumed and amount of money spent, and could provide valuable insight into how cravings influence drinking. The researchers believe that this information may be helpful in understanding the common relapses in those who are trying to discontinue alcohol use.

The information is also useful for those who try to reduce public alcohol consumption with tax policy.

With the widespread nature of not only alcohol and drug consumption, but other more moderate but still unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and overeating, understanding how craving affects behavior is important for those who plan education and prevention measures.

Learning how craving and behavioral economics affect addiction will be critical for helping individuals struggling with substance abuse. Many who want to quit using substances are frustrated with the difficulty of overcoming powerful cravings.

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