Cocaine Addicts Prefer Present Cash Over Future Coke


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.

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  1. Robin says:

    Might the responses be different if the addicts were currently under the influence of the drug and no recovering?

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    • hmt says:

      They might be different for “active” addicts but it looks like the study was framed around developing treatments. Presumably anyone seeking treatment is in the “recovering” category.

      It would be interesting to get data on “active” addicts as a change in the results might indicate strategies for deterrence programs.

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  2. Joel Upchurch says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Neil (SM) says:

      I’m not sure about whether some drug studies can do those things or not, but what you’re missing here is the participants did not actually get the cocaine or money, they simply answered about their preferences.

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  3. cackalacka says:

    This confirms a lot of my suspicions regarding the financial services industry, its performance, and its extracurriculars.

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  4. Sebastian Gomez says:

    Well they want the fix now, not in 30 days. So no matter the discount fare, it is infinitely more desirable (inelastic btw) to have the cash, go uptown and snort.

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  5. TP Mazembe says:

    A better way this could have been conducted is to have the research/experiments done with test subject actually in withdrawal. Then I suspect the results would be very different.

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  6. Jim says:

    I bet they’d take $500 worth of coke now over $1,000 in cash later. Immediate gratification, impulse control.

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  7. Aaron says:

    This makes sense. In ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ Dr. Venkatesh notes that gangs don’t accept discounts for later on because of the uncertainty whether the other party will still even be around in the future. I would imagine its the same with drug dealing too, another illegal activity with potential for violence, arrest, or something along those lines

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  8. G I Rocheque says:

    I don’t think this study’s results have anything to do with dependancy. A study done with money now versus more money later always results in the money now option because of the immediacy of now and the uncertainty of future. It’s how we’re programmed, to survive the here and now.
    Whatever commodity you use the now option will always be chosen ahead of the future option.
    A flawed study in my opinion, but what do I know.

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