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The Economics of Addiction

When country music legend George Jones sang of his alcoholism, “I’m living and dying by the choices I made,” he likely never realized that there would be an entire field of scientific research devoted to that very concept. Research recently published by the American Psychological Association Psychology of Addictive Behaviors examines a value-based decision making (VBDM) model for recovery from addiction. Psychologists from various universities identify the relationship between value judgements and successful recovery from addiction. 

From this behavioral economics perspective, addiction progresses when “substances increase in value (hypervaluation) whereas alternative, substance-free reinforcers decrease in value (hypovaluation);” This seems elementary: the authors suggest that recovery progresses as the interest in substance use and alcohol decreases; in other words, we begin to seek our recovery from drugs and alcohol only when the promise of sobriety outweighs the value of continuing to drink or use drugs. 

Singular value-signals that come from making a choice between two competing goals (ex. the choice to use drugs versus spending time with our children) build over time into a pattern of behavior, or evidence accumulation (EA). Relying on neuroscience and VBDM to explain preferential biases in alcohol and substance abuse cases, this research suggests that these biases and patterns can be overcome through quality intensive clinical treatment. Successful methods of treating addiction help clients decrease the perceived rewards of using, and increase the real and valued rewards of sustained recovery. Put simply: effective treatment makes it possible for clients to make healthier and rational choices.

This research also identifies how the availability of substance-free rewards in a client’s environment can have a profound impact on his or her success in recovery, even beyond the scope of the decision-making process. The holistic and comprehensive philosophy at New Paradigm Recovery has always incorporated family counseling, dual-diagnosis care, and trauma treatment to address multiple areas of each client’s life precisely for this reason.  We embrace this not merely to encourage wellness at home, at work, and in leisure, but to create the opportunity to redefine happiness and joy. By helping clients and families identify new positive alcohol and substance-free activities, we contribute to our clients’ potential for success through encouraging healthy decision-making patterns for lasting recovery.

Addiction treatment programs may benefit from giving these decision-making factors greater attention. While this research has many opportunities for further research, it poses significant questions about how treatment professionals can present clients with new opportunities for greater rewards in recovery, and help address the thought patterns which once made using drugs and alcohol seem like a rewarding option – particularly in early recovery.

At New Paradigm Recovery, we know that it is not enough to fear relapse; one must build a desire for a new way of life and learn to value life without drugs and alcohol.  This truth about lasting recovery from addiction is bolstered by the VBDM research. As noted in the research and supported by our experience, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), and twelve step programs are examples of therapies that can be successful in adjusting the skewed value-signals that result from long term alcohol and substance use, which cause clients to continue to drink or use drugs. The VBDM model of recovery offers the potential to gather and track information in new ways, and support clients in building new value systems in a discrete and intensive manner. Our goal at New Paradigm Recovery is to equip our clients and families with the tools and support essential for lasting recovery. Supporting positive substance-free values and encouraging the hope for a brighter future are crucial to that work. 

Field, M., Heather, N., Murphy, J. G., Stafford, T., Tucker, J. A., & Witkiewitz, K. (2020). Recovery from addiction: Behavioral economics and value-based decision making. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 34(1), 182–193. https://doi.org/10.1037/adb0000518

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