Instant gratification is clearly associated with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as addiction. Sufferers crave highs, never mind the negative consequences. Alcoholics grab one more drink, even if it’ll risk a hangover.
It seems obvious that impulse control and acting without thinking strongly correlate with addiction, but there may be a catch. Recent research shows this type of behavior could also play a role in treatment success stories.
What Is Instant Gratification?
In medical research terms, this behavior is called delay discounting. It refers to being impulsive, acting without thinking much about the consequences. If you act on an impulse and fail to use negative consequences as part of your decision-making, you are discounting what may happen in the future. You are discounting the idea of delaying the behavior, in favor of getting an instant reward. Being impulsive in this way is exciting. Sometimes it leads to great rewards when the outcomes of an action are positive. With addicts, however, impulsivity is usually what got them into drug abuse and on the path to addiction.
Among addicts, the rate of impulsivity is greater than among non-addicts. The desire for instant gratification is clearly something that plays an important role in addiction. Delay discounting, not regarding future outcomes before acting, has also been associated with relapses among drug addicts. The more impulsive someone is the more likely they are to relapse after addiction treatment. This kind of research finding means that treatments for addiction must address impulsive behaviors in order to be successful.
Using Delay Discounting in Treatment
Researchers from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute analyzed several studies for delay discounting and positive treatment outcomes among addicts. What they found was surprising. The addicts who were most successful after treatment, and who were least likely to relapse, were those with the highest levels of impulsivity at the beginning of treatment. These were also the patients who saw the biggest improvement in reducing impulsive behaviors during the course of addiction treatment.
Through their analyses of the studies, the researchers determined that their findings could be explained by memory tasks. The patients who were given tasks to help improve their memories were better able to learn self-control. They experienced the biggest improvement in reducing impulsive behaviors and were less likely to relapse. Memory and self-control functions overlap in the brain. Improving one seems to help improve the other. It also makes sense that a strong memory would help reduce relapses because memory is needed to keep goals in mind. It is also important in keeping in mind the negative consequences of relapsing. In other words, memory of the past is needed to help change behaviors in the future.
The findings regarding memory, delay discounting and treatment success suggest new avenues for addiction treatment. If caregivers can tap into an addict’s impulsiveness and improve his memory, he can learn to exert more self-control, plan better for the future and change negative behaviors while making good choices. The research analysis conducted on impulsiveness and addiction treatment outcomes is a small step, but still a step toward improving care for addicts and changing their futures.