Toward a behavioral economic understanding of drug dependence: delay discounting processes

Addiction. 2001 Jan;96(1):73-86. doi: 10.1046/j.1360-0443.2001.961736.x.


Behavioral economics examines conditions that influence the consumption of commodities and provides several concepts that may be instrumental in understanding drug dependence. One such concept of significance is that of how delayed reinforcers are discounted by drug dependent individuals. Discounting of delayed reinforcers refers to the observation that the value of a delayed reinforcer is discounted (reduced in value or considered to be worth less) compared to the value of an immediate reinforcer. This paper examines how delay discounting may provide an explanation of both impulsivity and loss of control exhibited by the drug dependent. In so doing, the paper reviews economic models of delay discounting, the empirical literature on the discounting of delayed reinforcers by the drug dependent and the scientific literature on personality assessments of impulsivity among drug-dependent individuals. Finally, future directions for the study of discounting are discussed, including the study of loss of control and loss aversion among drug-dependent individuals, the relationship of discounting to both the behavioral economic measure of elasticity as well as to outcomes observed in clinical settings, and the relationship between impulsivity and psychological disorders other than drug dependence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / economics
  • Impulsive Behavior / psychology*
  • Models, Economic
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Personality Assessment
  • Psychophysics
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / economics
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Time Factors