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.


fascinating.. but how does the addict's discount rate compare to a non-addict's discount rate?

i'm not sure how to evaluate the results without a comparison to the general population.


One of the best treatments for addiction, as seen in lots of clinical trials, is so-called "contingency management", which means giving some sort of reward (such as take-home methadone, cash, or non-cash redeemable voucher -- doesn't even have to be worth that much) in response to clean drug tests. In that case, people avoid using cocaine, opiates, nicotine, etc in return for a certain, defined reward in the future.

Jason kernan

Surely the survey us totally flawed and the addicts can see through it. The offer of money now vs future coke to an addict will always win cause the addict will take the cash now and buy the drugs to feed his habit.


Thought you might find this from a Chekhov story of interest. "They [the peasants] would not come to mow for us for twenty roubles, but they came for half a pail of vodka, though for twenty roubles they could have bought four pails." It is from My Life. It is not quite your experiment in that they did not want the cash. But the reason is because there was a delay in when they could use it to buy vodka as a opposed to getting some vodka now. Chekhov was trained as a medical doctor. Here is a link to the story:

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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:

Matthew Finn

In reading this and thinking more critically about personal experiences I would say this seems almost obvious in retrospect. Drug use is about instant gratification. It's normally about filling an empty void. The empty void makes the user then yearn for fulfillment, which in-hand with addiction, leads to constant use. But, if the instant gratification can come in a different form it would seem that the void is filled (if only for the moment.)

I think a great follow up would be to actually give the participants the amounts and then see what they feel later. Most of the people that took the money probably would have spent it on coke after the initial feeling of fulfillment wore off. So it would be interesting to see the number that felt remorse over taking the money as opposed to the coke. I think that number may be far more important than these. Although this is an incredibly intriguing study.



Is there a possibility of a data skew because the sample group were all seeking treatment?