Why Not Just Pay Alcoholics to Stay Sober?
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Why Not Just Pay Alcoholics to Stay Sober?


Does it pay to get sober? If you’re one of the research subjects chosen for an upcoming Virginia Tech study, it certainly does. When research assistant professor Mikhail Koffarnus recently received a half-million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Health to devise a new approach to treating alcoholism, he knew exactly what to do with all that money—he’d simply pay the alcoholics to get and stay sober. The more consecutive days they abstained, the more cash they’d collect each day.

To Do the Study, We Needed the Device

Why did anyone think of this before? Actually, Koffarnus did, but there simply wasn’t a practical way to verify whether the subjects had actually abstained. Earlier research had shown that cash rewards work fairly well for drug addicts. But unlike other drugs, which stay in your system for days or even months (as any addict who’s ever faced workplace testing knows) alcohol doesn’t linger in the body very long. To prove sobriety, testing would have to be so frequent as to be impractical for anyone who didn’t live within a short drive of a treatment center. The most promising method, good old breathalyzers, were too costly and easy to manipulate, especially since there was no way to ensure the person breathing into them was the same individual whose sobriety was on the line. And trusting the word of an alcoholic (or, let’s face it, pretty much anybody who stands to earn cash) was obviously a no-go.

Enter SOBERLINK, a portable, battery-operated breathalyzer topped with a camera and connected to a mobile server. It was the device Koffarnus had been waiting for. Now there was an effective way to collect the data he needed to see how big a motivator the cash reward was.

Show Them the Money

The research subjects earned $5 on a debit card the first day they tested sober. On Day 2, they earned $6; on Day 3, they earned $7, and so forth for three weeks. Participants who managed to stay sober for 21 straight days would rake in a total of $350. But those who fell off the wagon and had to reset their sobriety clock saw their rewards drop back down to the original $5 rate.

I’m the kind of person who loops around endlessly for 20 minutes to avoid paying for parking, so I can certainly see the appeal. The prospect of having to start over with the $5 rate seems like the biggest motivating factor for continued abstinence. But on the other hand, if you drank on Day 11 you’d still have $95 bucks you didn’t have before—not a bad deal. Why not take it one step further and have the price of a drink be losing all the cash you’d made, period?

For those wondering how you can cash in on your sobriety, unless you live in the community around Virginia Tech, you’re out of luck for the time being. But if Koffarnus’ local study shows promise, he wants to conduct a national version. “My dream is to create a decentralized treatment center, so everyone who wants help can get it,” he said. In particular, isolated rural areas where rehabs are few and far between could stand to gain from this remote testing system, one pay day at a time.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.