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Contingency management for substance use disorders: Theoretical foundation, principles, assessment, and components

Maxine Stitzer, PhD
Colin S Cunningham, PhD
Section Editor
Andrew J Saxon, MD
Deputy Editor
Richard Hermann, MD


Contingency management and other psychosocial interventions have a substantial role in the treatment of patients with substance use disorders (SUD), particularly those for which pharmacotherapy is unavailable or only partially effective. Contingency management is typically delivered as an augmentation to psychosocial treatment such as SUD counseling or psychotherapy.

Contingency management uses incentives to encourage treatment attendance and/or abstinence from alcohol/drug use. Contingency management interventions can be customized to some extent to address patient preferences or program needs, such as the resources available for the intervention.

This topic describes the theory, indications, assessment, and components of contingency management for use in SUD treatment. Efficacy, implementation, and training for contingency management are discussed separately. Other SUD treatments, including for specific substances and continuing care models, are discussed separately. (See "Contingency management for substance use disorders: Efficacy, implementation, and training" and "Pharmacotherapy for alcohol use disorder" and "Psychosocial treatment of alcohol use disorder" and "Cannabis use disorder: Treatment, prognosis, and long-term medical effects" and "Pharmacotherapy for stimulant use disorders in adults" and "Psychosocial interventions for stimulant use disorder in adults" and "Pharmacotherapy for smoking cessation in adults" and "Behavioral approaches to smoking cessation" and "Continuing care for addiction: Indications, features, and efficacy" and "Continuing care for addiction: Implementation".)


Contingency management is based on the principles of operant conditioning, in which drug abuse is conceptualized as a learning-based behavioral disorder motivated and maintained by the biological reinforcing effects of drugs. In this conceptual model, contingency management works by enhancing the positive consequences of drug abstinence.

In the natural environment, positive consequences of drug abstinence may be remote and uncertain (eg, better health, repaired relationships, social productivity). Contingency management interventions motivate and maintain drug abstinence by providing the drug user with earlier, more salient, and more predictable positive consequences for abstaining from drugs. As examples, monetary-based reinforcers such as tangible prizes or vouchers exchangeable for retail goods have been offered to patients with substance use disorders (SUD) based on their achievement of objectively measured, agreed-upon goals, particularly drug abstinence as demonstrated by negative urine tests.


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Aug 28, 2015.
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