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Money or cocaine? It all depends on timing

People who are looking for treatment for their cocaine addiction still really like cocaine, but they’ll choose money as an immediate reward if they can only get their drug of choice later.

Cocaine or money? Depends on how long the wait is

Although it might be somewhat surprising, the above finding is the result of a recent study by a team of researchers spanning the U.S. and Australia that was recently published in the journal Psychophramacology.

We’ve talked about the concept of relatively high impulsivity among addicts on A3 before and the concept isn’t a new one — Addicts make drug-focused choices in the short term even if there are larger rewards far off in the horizon. In fact, this sort of delay-discounting (considering future rewards as being worth less) is a general human phenomenon that has simply been found to be exaggerated among addicts.

Think about it – Would you prefer $50 now or $1000 in 6 year? What about $100 now?

By asking a set of similar questions researchers can determine an individuals discounting rate or the amount of discounting people put on the delay in getting the later reward. Up to now, most of this sort of research has been conducted using the same “now” and “later” rewards. People were asked to decide between money now or later, cocaine now or later, cigarettes, meth… you get it.

This recent study made things more interesting by creating a few different conditions:

  1. Money now Versus Money later
  2. Cocaine now Versus Cocaine later
  3. Money now Versus Cocaine later
  4. Cocaine now Versus Money later

The goal was to see if people discount money and drugs equally. Since one of the hallmarks of addiction is that addicts seem to undervalue everything else while overvaluing drugs, figuring out whether bringing delay into the mix was at the least interesting but at best possibly useful in treatment.

The researcher used participants who were actively looking for cocaine treatment and ended up with a relatively small sample of 47 individuals who met criteria for cocaine addiction. As is usually the case with these sorts of studies, most of the participants were men, the average education equaled high-school and the average age was early 40s.

Participants were asked how many grams of cocaine a $1000 was worth and that unique number was used for each participant as the equal point between money and drug. Then they were presented with options such as the above (X number of dollars now or X number of dollars in six months).  As participants made selections, the immediate amount was changed by 50% to counter their choice (it was reduced if they chose immediate and increased if they chose delayed rewards) and the procedure repeated six times for each of seven different delay periods (1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, and 25 years).

So, let’s say a participant was first asked if they wanted $500 now or 20 grams of cocaine. If they chose cocaine, their next choice would be $750 now or 20 grams of cocaine later; now if they chose money, the choices became $375 now or 20 grams of cocaine later… and on the experiment went.

Cocaine addicts choose cocaine if they can get it now, but not later

First of all, it’s important to note that the research showed that different participants had pretty stable discounting characteristics. That is, if a participant preferred to get things now rather than later, that was likely true across all conditions regardless of whether the reward was drugs or money. However, the different rewards also had a large influence on this equation.

The main finding from this study was that when faced with the option, cocaine addicts chose immediate money over later cocaine even if the immediate money amount was relatively low. That finding might seem surprising at first given what we think we know about addicts. Aren’t they supposed to always choose drugs regardless of what else we put in front of them?

Apparently, what matters is not only what we put in front of them but also when. Of course, anyone who actually knows an addict (or is one themselves) already understands that trying to simplify addiction to an ability to only choose drugs is silly. Addicts would die of starvation or a host of other issues pretty quickly if that was true. Addiction is much more nuanced than that, and as I mention at the end of this piece, this finding might not be as clear as one might think.

In fact, this finding has already been greatly supported by at least one addiction treatment tactic that we’ve discussed here on A3 – Contingency Management (CM). In CM, individuals in treatment are rewarded for staying clean and doing well in treatment. They’re not given cash but instead are rewarded with vouchers that let them buy food, clothes, etc. for providing drug-free urine tests and going to their assigned group meetings. This addiction treatment method follows the basic tenant of the psychology of learning – people do what they’re rewarded to do. This study offers a fresh perspective on the matter, suggesting that one of the reasons people do well and stay longer in treatment when given CM is that the immediate money reward is thought to be worth more than the possibility of getting drugs later. It might also explain why CM has only really been shown to work well while people are in treatment and not when they leave…

I mentioned earlier that I think these findings may be a little more complicated than they first seem. One of the major issues I have with this study stems from my life as a drug dealer. The users I know quickly equate money with drugs and so it is very possible that in their minds money now also equals cocaine now, although a smaller amount of it and they’ll take whatever drug they can get now instead of having to wait for it. Most regular users I’ve met would easily choose a single gram of meth now instead of 4 or 5 in 6 months. They simply don’t want to wait that long to get high. Money holds its value much better in the long run and this research supports that idea.


Bickel, Landes, Christensen, Jackson, Jones, Kurth-Nelson, Redish (2011). Single- and cross-commodity discounting among cocaine addicts: the commodity and its temporal location determine discounting rate, Psychopharmacology

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