A new study by addiction and neuroscience researchers sheds new light on understanding how cocaine addicts make decisions, and how they value the drug against the immediate and delayed reward of other items, such as cash. The upshot is that addicts discount cocaine at a steeper rate than they do money, consistently choosing to have money now, rather than twice the value of cocaine later. Here’s how the experiment worked:
Forty-seven cocaine addicts (who were all seeking treatment) were asked to guess the number of grams of cocaine worth $1,000. They were each then given a series of choices: cocaine now versus more cocaine later; money now versus more money later; cocaine now versus money later; or money now versus cocaine later. The initial amount offered for the immediate choice has half of the full value, and the delayed amount was always the full value. Preference was almost exclusively given to the money now option, according to the study’s lead researcher, Warren K. Bickel, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, and director of the Advanced Recovery Research Center there.
Until now, researchers believed that cocaine addicts valued the drug above any other commodity, no matter what the situation. Bickel’s findings however show that cocaine addicts place extra value on the drug only when it is immediately available, and future values of cocaine are heavily discounted. Bickel found this to have positive implications for developing drug treatment programs based on incentives. In his study, he writes:
We showed that a delayed drug is discounted more than when the drug is immediately available, no matter what the other option is. In other words, drug users are less likely to use drugs when the choice to use is presented only as a future outcome rather than an immediately available one. For treatment programs for which abstinence is reinforced immediately and drug consumption is available only after a delay, the incentive to abstain may outweigh future drug consumption.