Biopsychosocial-Spiritual Poverty: The Scarcity Trap and Addiction Recovery

– Bob Hennen, MS, LPC, LCAS
Greenville Outpatient Services Manager

Imagine being down to your last few dollars, with your next pay check looming 2 weeks away. How are you going to eat, pay the rent, electric, water, and buy diapers for the children? You arrive home to find a preapproved credit card in your mail. You accept the credit card and rush out to buy groceries for you and your children, stock up on diapers, and pay a few bills before reaching your credit limit. You did not factor in the cost of gas for travel to and from work and you lose your job. Then the monthly bill for the credit card arrives. The classic belief in economics is that humans are rational decision makers whom will make decisions in their best interest. But everything about this scenario screams irrationality. The concept of the Scarcity Trap provides insight into this scenario and may provide a different way of looking at recovery planning and decision making in early recovery.

The Scarcity Trap is a behavioral economics concept which describes the psychology behind scarcity, specifically decision making during times of scarcity. Every subject we think about takes up available space in our minds, limiting the amount of space available for thoughts about other subjects. For example, a person experiencing stress has diminished decision making abilities. The stress taxes the mind limiting the space available for other tasks. A classic scenario is family stress leading to diminished decision making abilities at work, which leads to increased stress due to mistakes made while at work. The Scarcity Trap argues scarcity begets scarcity, particularly in the way scarcity impacts the capacity for long-term decision making. Scarcity occupies a large portion of cognitive space limiting the ability to see how decisions made today will impact tomorrow.

You may or may not have experience with financial scarcity. For the purpose of this blog, financial scarcity is simply an analogy. Recovery involves the whole person; biologically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Does the Scarcity Trap occur in these facets of life? How do we apply the concept of scarcity to recovery planning and relapse prevention?

In order to apply the Scarcity Trap to other aspects of life, the meaning of scarcity will need to be reevaluated. Scarcity in some cases may not mean a lack of but may mean a lack of the “right” kind. For example, many in early recovery have supportive friends and family whom are not in personal recovery themselves. Research has demonstrated this type of support is beneficial short term, but long term success rates increase with the amount of recovery specific support (i.e. friends and family whom are supportive AND in personal recovery themselves). Although having an abundance of supportive friends and family is positive for recovery, it may still indicate social scarcity due to the lack of recovery specific supports. Food is another example. Many have access to an abundance of food but may continue to experience biological scarcity through unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, and poor sleep hygiene. Scarcity can also be created through excessive focus on one life domain to the detriment of the others. A hyper focus on work and economic success often creates scarcity in other life domains.

When we experience scarcity in any area of life, we run the risk of falling into the Scarcity Trap and making decisions which may be harmful to long term recovery. The old acronym H.A.L.T. is focused on scarcity in biological, psychological, and social aspects of life. In treatment we warn clients to be careful during times when they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Why do we do this? We teach this because people’s decision making abilities diminish when they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. In other words, we are warning people of the Scarcity Trap. Many times, scarcity in one of these areas decreases our ability for productive risk-benefit analysis. A common situation is a person in early recovery going to visit old using friends. Having not had time to fully develop a social network within the 12-Step program, they were experiencing scarcity in their social life. It is not uncommon for the person to share that they did not consider the risks of going to visit old using friends and only considered the immediate fulfillment of their need for social belonging. Another client had a pattern of entering unhealthy relationships which were typically initiated during times of emotional distress. This client was experiencing psychological scarcity due to a lack of healthy coping skills. Once healthy coping skills were established and psychological scarcity resolved, the pattern of unhealthy relationships was no longer necessary. In hindsight, we can see the risks to recovery involved in visiting old using friends and entering unhealthy relationships, just as, in hindsight, we can see the risks involved in reaching the limit on the credit card. But in that moment, scarcity clouded judgement and long term decision making skills diminished.

The Scarcity Trap can impact a person in recovery at any point, whether still in treatment or 15 years in recovery. Evaluating scarcity can be a starting point for continuing care planning with a person in treatment. By determining where scarcity exists, we can create a plan for the healthy fulfillment of each life domain. For the person in long term recovery, evaluating scarcity can be helpful in recovery management and continuing to build a more meaningful life of recovery. The solution, as usual, appears to be mindful awareness. When we are aware of this trap and we are aware of where scarcity resides in our lives, we can stop, pause, and give ourselves a little more time to determine the risks and benefits while considering the long term consequences. These ideas are not new. The Scarcity Trap simply offers a new and different lens to view continuing care planning and recovery management. The more lenses we have, the better the view.