The Effect of Episodic Future Thought on Delay Discounting, Outcome Expectancies, and Alcohol Use among Risky College Drinkers

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Virginia Tech

Positive, but distal consequences of reducing alcohol use among at-risk users may have little impact on behavior due to temporal discounting (Mazur, 1987), in which delayed rewards are devalued relative to more proximal rewards, even if such distal rewards actually provide considerably more value. Delay discounting may be manipulated using a variety of means, one of which involves utilizing prospective thinking about future autobiographical events and is termed Episodic Future Thinking (Atance and ONeill, 2001). Episodic future thinking (EFT) has been demonstrated in previous studies to be effective in reducing delay discounting relative to a variety of control conditions (Benoit, Gilbert, and Burgess, 2011; Daniel, Stanton, and Epstein, 2013a, 2013b; Lin and Epstein, 2014; Peters and Büchel, 2010) and recently among substance-abusing populations (Snider, LaConte, and Bickel, 2016; Stein et al., 2016). The present study examined EFT in a novel sample of at-risk alcohol users. Participants were randomized to EFT, episodic past thinking (EPT), or a control condition in which non-autobiographical events were recalled (CET). Immediately following intervention, results demonstrated significantly less discounting in EFT and EPT, relative to CET. At follow-up, EFT demonstrated significantly less temporal discounting and alcohol use, when compared to both EPT and CET. No differences among conditions in alcohol demand or alcohol use intentions were observed. The present study contributes a number of novel findings to the literature, most notably that engaging in EFT predicts reductions in alcohol use prospectively and that reductions in delay discounting associated with EFT persist at least a week later, without any additional intervention. Such findings suggest that EFT manipulations influence the valuation of future rewards. Additionally, findings support EFT as a useful supplement to existing empirically-supported treatments or a component of novel substance use disorder treatments.

Alcohol, Substance Use Disorders, Delay Discounting, Episodic Future Thinking