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Combating the scarcity mindset, addictive behaviors and vices: 6 strategies for healthier police officers

From embracing support networks to seeking opportunities for personal and professional growth, these approaches aim to improve officers’ health and resilience

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By acknowledging the influence of the scarcity brain and the dangerous paths it can lead us down, we are better equipped to counteract it.

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Upon entering law enforcement, I was cautioned about the career’s perils. I received sage advice warning against drinking, gambling and excessive spending, alongside cautions about how the job can negatively impact our waistlines and heart health. It was also mentioned how the profession takes a toll on our relationships. While these vices are not exclusive to law enforcement, the chronic stress and exposure to trauma experienced by first responders tend to have a magnified effect compared to the average civilian.

I recently listened to Michael Easter being interviewed on several podcasts about his book, “Scarcity brain: Fix your craving mindset and rewire your habits to thrive with enough.” Easter explores the “scarcity loop” and discusses how humans are inherently predisposed to fall into it. After discovering this and understanding its implications, it inspired me to examine how we can adopt the concepts and lessons from his book into our law enforcement careers and lifestyles to foster healthier behaviors and outcomes.

Whether you’ve been on the job for two days or two decades, it’s almost certain you’ve observed or heard about these issues manifesting in colleagues, if not in yourself. So, let’s delve into understanding the “scarcity brain” and explore how we can apply this knowledge toward fostering healthier officers and promoting longer, more fulfilling careers.

What is the scarcity brain and scarcity loop?

The scarcity brain stems from our brain’s decision-making processes aimed at ensuring our survival during times of resource scarcity. Reflecting on centuries or eons past, we were genetically and biologically programmed to consume any viable calories available to us, uncertain of when our next meal would come or what efforts would be required to obtain it. Consequently, overeating served as a survival mechanism during periods of prolonged food scarcity.

The scarcity loop is essentially a cycle driven by our scarcity brain, influenced by reward systems. Easter delineates this into three key concepts: opportunity, unpredictable rewards and rapid repeatability.

A prime example of this in action is the mechanism of a casino slot machine:

  • Opportunity: Winning money
  • Unpredictable rewards: You can win nothing or life-changing sums of money
  • Quick repeatability: You can play multiple rounds within a couple of seconds

Research has shown that animals will choose to pull a “gambling” lever, where food dispensing is random, over a lever that consistently provides food. Similarly, a study on slot machine users revealed a decrease in satisfaction upon winning money, suggesting that escapism, rather than monetary gain, was the true objective. Understanding that we are biologically inclined to pursue these “gains,” rewarded by dopamine releases, makes it clearer how addictive behaviors can emerge.

The problem “today”

Food and nutrition: While food insecurity remains a genuine concern, the majority of us are unlikely to face the threat of starvation. However, our brains do not fully acknowledge the super-abundance of food that we could easily obtain and consume at virtually any hour of the day.

For decades, the average American has had access to hyper-palatable food around the clock through fast food drive-thrus and convenience store offerings. Easter identifies the three V’s of food engineering: value, variety and velocity — meaning food must taste good, offer an interesting array of flavors and textures, and be quick to eat. Food is engineered to be more appealing than anything found in its natural state, creating a perfect storm for overconsumption.

For police officers, the demands of long and night shifts often push them toward relying on high-calorie, nutrient-poor food. I’ve lost count of the times I or a colleague have had to rapidly consume our meals, hours later than planned, due to ongoing calls for service. Stress eating significantly impacts many first responders, including myself. When under stress, our bodies cannot distinguish the source, and police officers frequently operate in a moderately to highly stressful environment inherent to their duties. I recall numerous occasions when I consumed a meal in mere minutes or when a single cookie from the breakroom at 4 a.m. turned into five.

Overstimulation and addiction as escapism: We live in an era where any type of movie, game or media is accessible instantly at our fingertips. This ability to generate instant gratification and dopamine hits through gaming apps, dating apps and various forms of social media has led many of us to fall into patterns of boredom and “doom scrolling” for countless, unnerving hours.

While not everyone is officially diagnosed with addictions, those of us who are introspective may recognize behaviors in ourselves that could be categorized as addictive, whether due to the level of compulsion, the amount of time or other resources invested, or how these behaviors might interfere with our desired lifestyle or goals. It’s common to work with or have worked with someone who has been significantly impacted by some form of addiction.

The nature of shift work in policing often results in spending an excessive amount of time on the job. Overtime is frequently mandatory or taken on voluntarily to support the team, compensate for time lost at home through financial gain or to provide gifts. As police officers, we spend so much time being cops, thinking and talking like cops with our colleagues, and due to strong bonds, often socializing with them outside of work as well. This camaraderie is something I deeply value.

However, the job can sometimes become so integral to our identity that we find ourselves uncomfortable or reluctant to engage actively with those outside of the profession, including friends, neighbors and even our own families. Numerous significant works of literature have explored these dynamics thoroughly. What is crucial to consider from discussions on scarcity and addictive behavior is how these dynamics can manifest in our individual lives, urging us to be mindful of their impact.

Gambling with our career: Sometimes the issues make headlines; other times, they circulate as local gossip. Instances of police officers faltering on duty, engaging in controversial drama, complaints, use of force or affairs do occur. While not the norm, these issues are prevalent enough across the nation to warrant attention. As a profession, we have options: dismiss these as isolated incidents involving “bad apples,” conduct a case-by-case analysis or acknowledge these as significant issues. Recognizing the importance of fostering a wellness and resilience-supporting culture could be a proactive step in addressing the underlying conditions that contribute to these negative actions.

We’ve all heard of the “bad boy” or “bad girl” in a crew or a neighboring city — the officer whose impulsive behavior continually lands them in trouble, whether with civilians or their superiors. I’ve encountered officers who have described themselves as prone to self-sabotage, even expressing a sense of victimhood regarding their actions. Can getting into trouble serve as a source of dopamine? Absolutely. For some officers, violating policies and attracting attention may act as a perverse incentive, especially for those lacking balance in their work or personal lives. From peer officers to chiefs, our responsibility is to recognize these patterns in our colleagues and intervene constructively to alter the behavior and support the individual involved.

The adage “idle hands are the devil’s playground” is particularly relevant in a career filled with heightened danger, stress and emotion. Over time, the routine can become mundane, and the highs and lows less impactful. Police officers are well aware that complacency poses a significant risk, not just from a safety and training standpoint, but also in terms of career aspirations and personal growth. Officers may act out, either professionally or personally, if their need for rewarding experiences is not met constructively. Without personal growth, we risk stagnation or, worse, deterioration.

6 strategies for healthier police officers

1. Take stock: Identify your vices. Consult your significant other and close friends for their insights. If the thought of asking makes you anxious, reflect on what their responses might be; you likely have an idea already. If overeating is a concern, establish routines that accommodate meal prep and healthier eating options. If a particular phone app tempts you into unhealthy habits, consider deleting the app or implementing a screen time limit for its use.

2. Use the buddy system: Navigating accountability solo can be challenging, so it’s crucial to embrace and seek out support. If work or home stressors provoke anger, especially around sensitive topics, communicate with your partner. Sharing these feelings can foster proactive active bystandership or encourage a helpful exchange of roles or support from your partner. On a lighter note, if you’re combating fatigue during the late hours, consider partnering up for a walking patrol, doing some push-ups or visiting a 24/7 grocery store to pick up healthier snacks like deli meats, baby carrots and fresh fruit.

3. Live outside the blue world: This exact phrase was taught in the Wash. State Academy curriculum back in 2007, but I hope it is widespread all over. Keep your friends and circles that aren’t police. Ultimately, this job is truly more than a job and it requires active practice to make sure it does not overly consume us. I have plenty of friends who have left the profession after a full career or just part of one. The thing that everyone seems to agree on is that leaving is hard, and people and hobbies outside that are not embedded in law enforcement are crucial for health and wellbeing.

4. Be intentional: Shift work can be challenging, oscillating between being consistently difficult and unpredictably irregular. It’s important to schedule date nights with your significant other and family nights. Have backup plans that everyone agrees to keep free in case you’re detained at work, called to a critical incident or required for court testimony. While most officers learn to celebrate holidays whenever possible, maintaining relationships requires effort on a monthly and ideally weekly basis. Make sure to plan and take vacations. Officer burnout is a significant issue, as are staffing and recruitment challenges. Yet, without allowing officers time to recharge, we risk depleting our ranks. Consider arranging shift swaps if needed. Everyone performs better with something to look forward to; I had no problem working extra long shifts for a colleague if it meant I could secure time off later for adventures and creating memories with loved ones.

5. Combat boredom with challenge: If you find yourself bored, it likely means you’ve become proficient (enough) at your job to the point where you’re no longer challenged. Your routine has become second nature. You might choose tasks that require minimal effort or handle cases in a routine way, simply adjusting for different people and circumstances. Reflect on the last time you were genuinely puzzled by an issue or needed to consult with several colleagues and supervisors to devise a suitable solution. Consider a task you’ve consistently delegated to others. Investigate what it would take to learn that task or at least understand a portion of it. Think about shadowing a different unit or having a discussion with a role model from a specialized position. By actively seeking to broaden your skill set, you’ll discover new opportunities and avenues for learning within this vast field. Embrace the opportunity to be inexperienced at something — it signifies your choice to learn and evolve.

6. Remember your “why” and ask “Is this helpful?” I had the benefit of recently working directly in recruiting. It helped renew, in several ways, my “why.” In 2020, I was a patrol sergeant, focused on trying to create support and confidence for my patrol crew, in what we knew to be the most challenging and jarring time in law enforcement. Before that, I was a new father and reflected on what world I wanted to leave for my daughter. As a K-9 handler, I wanted a hand in catching truly dangerous subjects to help ensure public safety. As a new officer 16 years ago, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to do something important. I wanted to prove something to myself. I wanted to be part of something bigger and be selfless.


While evolving and adapting to your purpose, consider whether “the thing” will support or hinder your goals. Will indulging in three donuts be beneficial? Almost certainly not. Is speeding to a call faster than advisable going to be helpful? Likely not. Will delivering a really good sarcastic remark to a loud, abrasive community member contribute to the legacy you wish to leave as an officer? No, although it might feel satisfying for a brief moment. It’s important to acknowledge your emotions but not be governed by them. Focus on the larger picture — what’s best for you, your team, the community and the future of law enforcement.

By acknowledging the influence of the scarcity brain and the dangerous paths it can lead us down, we are better equipped to counteract it. Ultimately, when our dedication to purpose, passion and excellence surpasses the limitations of the scarcity mindset, we can overcome it with strategies that enhance our health and wellness, as well as that of our colleagues. This, in turn, leads to improved policing and a safer community.

Commander Eric Tung has been a police officer for 16 years in Washington State. He currently oversees patrol operations and his department’s wellness and peer support programs. He has led and innovated recruiting, hiring, training, community engagement, civil disturbance and field training programs. Eric was a 2022 “40 Under 40" honoree, recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He develops wellness and leadership content on @bluegritwellness on Instagram, and the Blue Grit Radio podcast.