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Nicotine Tob Res. 2017 Jun 1;19(6):694-702. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntw246.

Withdrawal-Related Changes in Delay Discounting Predict Short-Term Smoking Abstinence.

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Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Nicotine Addiction, Department of Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.



Impulsive decision making is associated with smoking behavior and reflects preferences for smaller, immediate rewards and intolerance of temporal delays. Nicotine withdrawal may alter impulsive decision making and time perception. However, little is known about whether withdrawal-related changes in decision making and time perception predict smoking relapse.


Forty-five smokers (14 female) completed two laboratory sessions, one following 24-hour abstinence and one smoking-as-usual (order counterbalanced; biochemically verified abstinence). During each visit, participants completed measures of time perception, decision making (ie, discount rates), craving, and withdrawal. Following the second laboratory session, subjects underwent a well-validated model of short-term abstinence (quit week) with small monetary incentives for each day of biochemically confirmed abstinence.


Smokers significantly overestimated time during abstinence, compared to smoking-as-usual (p = .021), but there were no abstinence effects on discount rates (p = .6). During the quit week, subjects were abstinent for 3.5 days (SD = 2.15) and smoked a total of 12.9 cigarettes (SD = 15.8). Importantly, higher discount rates (ie, preferences for immediate rewards) during abstinence (abstinence minus smoking difference score) predicted greater number of days abstinent (p = .01) and fewer cigarettes smoked during the quit week (p = .02). Withdrawal-related change in time reproduction did not predict relapse (p = .2).


These data suggest that individuals who have a greater preference for immediate rewards during abstinence (vs. smoking-as-usual) may be more successful at maintaining short-term abstinence when provided with frequent (eg, daily) versus less frequent incentive schedules (eg, 1 month). Abstinence-induced changes in decision making may be important for identifying smokers who may benefit from interventions that incentivize abstinence such as contingency management (CM).


The present results suggest that smokers who place greater subjective value on immediate rewards during withdrawal (compared to smoking-as-usual) may be less likely to relapse if offered small, frequent monetary incentives to maintain abstinence. Thus, the current findings may have important implications for identifying smokers most likely to benefit from particular interventions such as CM. Future research might evaluate whether withdrawal-related changes in delay discounting moderate treatment response to different incentive schedules with the goal of optimizing CM effectiveness to improve abstinence rates.

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