Understanding and Preventing Relapse
Kelly D. Brownell
G. Alan Marlatt
G. Terence Wilson
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
University of Washington
University of Oregon and Oregon Research Institute
ABSTRACT." This article examines relapse by integrating
knowledge from the addictive disorders of alcoholism,
smoking, and obesity. Commonalities across these areas
suggest at least three basic stages of behavior change: mo-
tivation and commitment, initial change, and mainte-
nance. A distinction is made between lapse and relapse,
with lapse referring to the process (slips or mistakes) that
may or may not lead to an outcome (relapse). The natural
history of relapse is discussed, as are the consequences of
relapse for patients and the professionals who treat them.
Information on determinants and predictors of relapse is
evaluated, with the emphasis on the interaction of indi-
vidual environmental, and physiological factors. Methods
of preventing relapse are proposed and are targeted to the
three stages of change. Specific research needs in these
areas are discussed.
The problem of relapse remains an important challenge
in the fields dealing with health-related behaviors, par-
ticularly the addictive disorders. This is true for areas of
obesity (Brownell, 1982; Rodin, 198 l; Stunkard & Pen-
ick, 1979; Wilson, 1980), smoking (Lando & McGovern,
1982; Lichtenstein, 1982; Ockene, Hymowitz, Sexton, &
Broste, 1982; Pechacek, 1979; Shiffman, 1982) and al-
coholism (Marlatt, 1983; Miller & Hester, 1980; Nathan,
1983; Nathan & Goldman, 1979).
The purpose of this article is to focus on relapse by
integrating the perspectives of four researchers and eli-
nicians who have worked with one or more of the addictive
disorders (Brownell, 1982; Lichtenstein, 1982; Marlatt,
1983; Wilson, 1980). We will discuss the natural history
of relapse, its determinants and effects, and methods for
prevention. We hope that our collective experience and
different perspectives will aid in developing a model for
evaluating and preventing relapse.
Commonalities and Differences in the
Compelling arguments can be marshaled for both com-
monalities and differences in the addictive disorders.
Many differences exist, both among the disorders and
among persons afflicted with the same disorder. For ex-
ample, genetic contributions to both alcoholism (Mc-
Clearn, 1981; Schuckitt, 1981) and obesity (Stunkard et
al., 1986) suggest separate pathways for their development.
There may be key differences in the pharmacology of
nicotine and alcohol (Ashton & Stepney, 1982; Best,
Wainwright, Mills, & Kirkland, in press; Gilbert, 1979;
Myers, 1978; Pomerleau & Pomerleau, 1984), and food
abuse fits even less neatly with concepts of physical de-
pendency, withdrawal, and tolerance. Treatment goals
also vary, with abstinence the target in some cases and
moderation in others.
Individual differences within the addictions are also
impressive. Variable treatment responses are an example.
There are also striking differences in patterns of use. Some
smokers, alcoholics, and overeaters engage in steady sub-
stance use, whereas others binge. Combinations of phys-
iological, psychological, social, and environmental factors
may addict different people to the same substance. Finally,
different processes may govern the initiation and mainte-
nance of the disorders.
There is also increasing emphasis on commonalities.
One reason is that rates for relapse appear so similar. In
1971, Hunt, Barnett, and Branch found nearly identical
patterns of relapse in alcoholics, heroin addicts, and
smokers. The picture is the same today (Marlatt & Gor-
don, 1985). There may also be common determinants of
relapse (Cummings, Gordon, & Maflatt, 1980). These
factors suggest important commonalities in the addictive
disorders. Progress may be aided by viewing these dis-
orders from multiple perspectives (Levison, Gerstein, &
Maloff, 1983; Maflatt & Gordon, 1985; Miller, 1980; Na-
The notion of commonalities gained support from
expert panels assembled by two government agencies. The
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) convened a
panel of researchers in alcoholism, obesity, smoking, and
drug abuse and found both conceptual and practical sim-
ilarities in the areas (NIDA, 1979). Similar conclusions
appeared in a more extensive report by the National
Academy of Sciences (Levison et al., 1983). Both reports
noted the importance of relapse and suggested the utility
of combining perspectives from different areas of the ad-
The question of whether the addictions are more
similar than different is difficult to answer. It may be the
case, for example, that there are common psychological
adaptations to different physiological pressures. Nicotine
dependence may be the central issue for a smoker, ex-
cessive fat cells for a dieter, and disordered alcohol me-
tabolism for an alcoholic, but there may be common social
or psychological provocations for relapse, emotional re-
actions to initial slips, and problems in reestablishing
control. Our hope is to expand the information to be
July 1986 ~ American Psychologist
Copyright 1986 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0003-066X/86/$00.75
Vol. 41, No. 7, 765-782
focused on relapse by considering both similarities and
differences. In so doing, both conceptual'and practical
ideas may emerge that would not be suggested by the
knowledge available in any one area.
Rates and Definition
Relapse rates for the addictions are assumed to be in the
range of 50% to 90% (Hunt et al., 1971; Hunt & Mata-
razzo, 1973; Marlatt & Gordon, 1980, 1985). This un-
derscores the importance of the problem. However; de-
fining specific rates is difficult. Hidden within these av-
erages is large variability. The rates depend on
characteristics of the addiction, individual variables, the
success of treatment, and so forth.
The figures generally cited for relapse could over-
estimate or underestimate actual rates. Most data are from
clinical programs, so rates are based on those who have
received formal treatment. These figures could overstate
the problem because only difficult cases are seen and be-
cause only one attempt to change is studied (Schachter,
1982). persons attempting to change on their own may
be more successful and may relapse less frequently
(Schachter, 1982). The vast majority of persons who
change do so on their own (Ockene, 1984). These data
could understate the case because clinical programs are
most likely to provide effective treatments. In addition,
#arious criteria are used to define relapse. For example,
relapse in alcohol studies could be defined as days intox-
icated, days hospitalized or jailed, days drinking out of
control, or the use of any alcohol. This points to the need
for standard definitions and for the study of the natural
history of relapse.
Lapse and Relapse--Process Versus Outcome
There are two common definitions of relapse, each re-
fleeting a bias regarding its nature and severity (Marlatt
& Gordon, 1985). Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary
of 1983 gives both definitions. The first is "a recurrence
of symptoms of a disease after a period of improvement."
This refers to an outcome and implies a dichotomous
view because a person is either ill and has symptoms or
is well and does not. The second definition is "the act or
instance of backsliding, worsening, or subsiding." This
focuses on a process and implies something less serious,
perhaps a slip or mistake.
The choice of the process or outcome definition has
important implications for conceptualizing, preventing,
and treating relapse. We suggest that lapse may best de-
scribe a process, behavior, or event (Marlatt & Gordon,
rhis article had its origins in a symposium on relapse at the World
Congress on Behavior Therapy, Washington, I)(2, 1983. This work was
supported in part by Research SCientist Development Award MH00319
from NIMH and by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to Kelly
D. BrowneU, grant HL29547 to Edward Lichtenstein from NHLBI,
grant AA00259 to G. Terence Wilson from NIAAA, and grant AA05591
to G. Alan Marlatt from NIAAA.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kelly
D. Brownell, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, 133
South 36th St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104.
1985). Webster's defines lapse as "a slight error or slip
?9 . . a temporary fall esp. from a higher to a lower state."
A lapse is a single event, a reemergence of a previous
habit, which may or may not lead to the state of relapse.
When a slip or mistake is defined as a lapse, it implies
that corrective action can be taken, not that control is
lost completely. There is support for this distinction in
smokers (Coppotelli & Orleans, 1985; Mermelstein &
Lichtenstein, 1983) and in dieters (Dubbert & Wilson,
1984). In these cases, different determinants were found
for lapses (slips) and relapses.
The challenge with this approach is defining when
one or more lapses become a relapse. One former smoker
may lose control with the first transgression, whereas an-
other may smoke one cigarette each month and never
lose control. A lapse, therefore, could be defined con-
cretely as use of the substance in the case of smoking and
alcoholism or violation of program guidelines for a dieter.
The individual's response to these lapses determines
whether relapse has occurred. This varies from person to
person and may be best defined by perceived loss of con-
trol. Reliable measures do not yet exist for this assessment.
Research in this area is important for the field.
The Nature and Process of Relapse
Surprisingly little is known about relapse in its natural
state. Most data are from clinical programs where differ-
ent treatments are used with different populations, so it
is difficult to isolate the factors that influence relapse. In
addition, few researchers have done careful evaluations
of patients when they are most likely to relapse, that is,
after treatment has ended. Periodic follow-ups in groups
are the only contacts with patients in most studies, so
repeated, intensive assessments are needed. There would
be great value in learning more about the nature and
process of relapse.
The Need for a Natural History
A metaphor that describes traditional thought on relapse
is of a person existing perilously close to the edge of a
cliff. The slightest disruption can precipitate a fall from
which there is no return'. A person is always on the brink
of relapse, ready to fall at any disturbance. There may
be physiological, psychological, or social causes of the
disturbance, but the outcome is just as final. The first slip
creates momentum so that a complete relapse is certain.
This metaphor may be inadequate.. It does not ex-
plain why a relapse occurs under the same circumstances
that the person managed before. An eating binge may
precipitate relapse in a dieter, but such an individual has
probably recovered from similar binges in the past. A
smoker may relapse after being offered a cigarette, but
there are cases where this same person refused the ciga-
rette or prevented the lapse from becoming a relapse.
Also, the metaphor is based on observations of people
who have relapsed, not those who have not, therefore,
successful recovery is seldom seen.
Information on natural history could address the
question of whether the probability of relapse increases
766 July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist
or decreases with time. If relapse occurs when treatment
"wears off," the probability should increase with time. If
the metaphor used above is valid, the chance of relapse
should increase with time simply because more distur-
bances could occur. One can speculate, however, that a
person learns to cope effectively as time passes and that
those who "survive" beyond the initial period are those
who will succeed. To the extent withdrawal symptoms
precipitate relapse, particularly in smoking and alcohol-
ism, the likelihood of relapse should decrease as the body
adapts to the absence of the addictive substance.
It is in this context that the concept of a "safe" point
arises. This is a point in time before which relapse is
likely and beyond which relapse is unlikely. In the work
of Hunt et al. (1971) on heroin addiction, smoking, and
alcoholism, relapse curves stabilized after the first three
months. It is appealing to conclude that individuals who
abstain for three months are likely to succeed thereafter,
but more recent evidence does not support a specific safe
point (Lichtenstein & Rodrigues, 1977; Wilson & Brow-
nell, 1980). Defining such a point would have important
conceptual and practical implications, so more study on
this topic could pay high dividends. Interpreting relapse
curves may be the first step.
Relapse curves are one type of survival curve. As
such, the figures must be interpreted with several facts in
mind (Elandt-Johnson & Johnson, 1980; Marlatt & Gor-
don, 1985; Sutton, 1979). Group averages do not repre-
sent individuals. Madatt, Goldstein, and Gordon (1984)
found that abstinence rates for smokers after quitting on
the basis of a New Year's resolution were 21% both 4 and
12 months later, implying that relapse rates stabilize and
show a safe point at 4 months. However, different indi-
viduals formed the 21% these two times; some persons
moved from abstinence to relapse whereas equal numbers
moved in the opposite direction. Second, the cumulative
nature of the curves implies that a person who relapses
will remain so; survival curves are negatively accelerating
by their nature. Schachter (1982) noted that cure for many
persons follows several relapses. Third, the probability of
survival for the entire group increases with time because
the persons at highest risk are most likely to leave the
sample. Life table analyses have been designed to deal
with these issues (Elandt-Johnson & Johnson, 1980).
Therefore, it may be possible in future research to develop
a time line for the relapse process and to determine
whether there are "safe" points.
Some information does exist on the natural history
of the addictions. Vaillant's (1983) report on the long-
term progress of 110 alcohol abusers, 71 of whom were
"alcohol dependent," shows the complexity of the issue.
Vaillant's book, and an article by Vaillant and Milofsky
(1982), showed the importance of cultural and ethnic
factors in alcoholism. Many personal and environmental
factors influenced the propensity to drink excessively. It
was clear from these data that a lapse does not necessarily
become a relapse and that this transition has many de-
Schachter (1982) interviewed 161 persons from the
Psychology Department at Columbia University and from
a resort community. In their retrospective accounts, they
reported much higher rates of success at dieting and
smoking cessation than suggested by the literature. Al-
most all successes were achieved without professional aid.
Although Schachter's methods have been questioned (Jef-
fery & Wing, 1983; Prochaska, 1983), he made several
important points. He noted that cure rates are based on
clinical samples and that self-quitters may differ from
therapy-assisted quitters, a notion supported by Di-
Clemente and Prochaska (1982). Second, he found that
many of the successful quitters had made numerous at-
tempts to change before finally succeeding.
Marlatt and Gordon (1980, 1985) have examined
the natural history of the relapse itself. Beginning with a
high-risk situation, their cognitive-behavioral model ad-
dresses the coping process (Figure 1). The absence of a
coping response leads to decreased self-efficacy (Bandura,
1977a, 1977b), then use of the substance, and then the
cognitive phenomenon they label the "abstinence viola-
tion effect." This phenomenon involves the loss of control
that follows violation of self-imposed rules. The end result
of this process is increased probability of relapse. Recent
data from an analysis of relapse episodes in smokers
showed a significant difference in attributions for slips
between subjects who slipped (smoked at least 1 cigarette)
and regained abstinence and those who relapsed (Gold-
stein, Gordon, & Marlatt, 1984). Persons who relapsed
made more internal, characterological attributions for the
slip. This model is useful in conceptualizing the relapse
process from the point at which the person is in a high-
Marlatt and Gordon's (1985) model allows for mul-
tiple determinants of high-risk situations but emphasizes
cognitive processes thereafter. Other factors of a physio-
logical or environmental nature may also be important.
A Cognitive-Behavioral Model of the Relapse Process
Beginning With the Exposure to a High-Risk Situation
Note. Reprinted from Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in Addictive
Behavior Change (p. 38) by G. A. Marlatt and J. R. Gordon, 1985, New York:
Guilford Press. Copyright 1985 by Guilford Press. Reprinted by permission.
July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist 767
For example, the use of nicotine or alcohol after a period
of abstinence may create a physiological demand for ad-
ditional use. An environmental example is that of a
smoker whose lapse occurs in a social setting where others
are smoking. The resulting cues may provoke further use.
Grunberg and colleagues have found powerful effects of
nicotine on the regulation of body weight and food pref-
erences in both humans and animals (Grunberg, 1982;
Grunberg & Bowen, 1985; G-runberg~ Bowen, Maycock,
& Nespor, 1985; Grunberg, Bowen, & Morse, 1984).
Stopping smoking can create physiological pressure to
change food intake and gain weight. This in turn has
psychological and environmental consequences that can
precipitate relapse. Therefore, it is important to consider
the interaction of individual, environmental, and physi-
ological factors in all stages of the change process.
There is much to be learned about the natural history
of relapse. More descriptive information is needed on
lapses and their associations with relapse. This research
is not easy because the work must be prospective and
because qualitative and quantitative work must be com-
bined. AS an example, Lichtenstein (1984)followed
treated smokers at 1-, 2-, 3-, 6-, and 12-month intervals
with telephone calls. Relapses were preceded by slips for
41 subjects; 19 subjects reported slips but did not relapse.
More information of this nature would be useful.
Stages of Change
Several attempts have been made to divide the change
process into stages (DiClemente & Prochaska, 1982;
Horn, 1976; Marlatt & Gordon, 1985; Prochaska, 1979;
Prochaska & DiClemente, 1982, 1983, 1984; Rosen &
Shipley, 1983). There seems to be a convergence of opin-
ion that at least three fundamental stages exist.
Horn (1976) first proposed four stages of change in
smoking cessation (a) contemplating change, (b) deciding
to change, (c) short-term change, and (d) long-term
change. This is similar to the three-stage models suggested
by DiClemente and Proehaska (I982), Rosen and Shipley
(1983), and Marlatt and Gordon (1985), which involve
the decision and commitment to change, initial change,
and maintenance of change.
Prochaska and DiClemente have done the most
thorough work in this area by evaluating stage models of
smoking cessation and therapy in general. Prochaska
(1979) reviewed 300 therapy outcome studies and pro-
posed five stages, three of which involved "verbal pro-
cesses" and two "behavioral processes." DiClemente and
Prochaska (1982) used this model to compare smokers
who quit on their own to those who used commercial
programs. They proposed the three stages mentioned
above and described six verbal and four behavioral pro-
cesses within the stages. In their recent work, Proehaska
and DiClemente (1983, 1984) suggested five stages: (a)
precontemplation, (b) contemplation, (c) action, (d)
maintenance, and (e) relapse.
More work is needed to test the utility of the various
stage models. They are similar in many respects. Each
has at least one stage where motivation and commitment
are central, followed by initial change and then the
maintenance of change, so we will use these three fun-
damental stages to organize the description of relapse
prevention later in this article. Whichever stage model
prevails, we feel that relapse must be considered in fight
of the stages that precede it. This will draw attention to
the early determinants of relapse and the importance of
the many factors that influence long-term success.
A stage model may also be helpful for relapse itself.
A model might include the time prior to a lapse, the lapse
itself, and the period in which the person does or does
not relapse. The work of Lichtenstein, Antonuccio, and
Rainwater (1977), Cummings et al. (1980), and Shiffman
(1982, 1984) suggests the utility of such an approach.
An important conceptual advance has been the em-
phasis of Prochaska and DiClemente (1982, 1984) on a
circular rather than linear model of change. Linear models
have stages that occur in a specific sequence, with relapse
occurring at the last stage. A circular model shows relapse
leading back to an earlier stage from which an individual
may make another attempt to change. Relapse can be
viewed in a less negative light from this perspective, as
an individual may acquire information or skills that may
be helpful later. This is consistent with Schachter's (1982)
notion that success for most individuals comes after sev-
eral relapses. Taking this to the extreme, one could suggest
that relapse is a necessary step on the path to success.
We do not support this extreme , but we do feel that relapse
may provide valuable experience and that persons who
relapse should be instructed, accordingly.
The Consequences of Relapse
Relapse could provoke a variety of responses in the in-
dividual. It is generally assumed that these responses are
negative, but this may not be true in all cases. This is an
important issue because these responses may determine
the likelihood of success in subsequent attempts to change.
It would appear at first glance that relapse has neg-
ative emotional effects. Disappointment, frustration, and
self-condemnation are apparent in people who relaps e .
Family and friends are unhappy and sometimes angry.
Yet, learning may occur before or during the relapse, so
some benefit may exist. One study tracked depression in
subjects who lost weight and then regained it (Brownell
& Stunkard, 198 I). Depression scores dropped as weight
declined, but returned halfway to baseline as half of the
weight was regained. Although these subjects were not
successful maintainers, the net change in mood was still
There may also be physiological effects of relapse.
When a person stops smoking, the body begins the healing
process, and risk for premature death declines (U.S. De-
partment of Health and Human Services, 1983). Because
there is a dose-response relationship between smoking
and disease, bouts of abstinence may incur some benefit,
so the smoker who relapses may be better off medically
than one who never quit. This is highly speculative, but
it does show that this issue deserves more attention.
The picture may be different in the weight loss area,
768 July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist
where relapse may have detrimental metabolic and health
effects. A recent study found that repeated cycles of weight
loss and regain in animals was associated with increased
metabolic efficiency (Brownell, Greenwood, Shrager, &
Stellar, 1986). As a result, the animals lost weight at half
the rate when they were put on a diet a second time even
though intake was the same on both diets. When allowed
to eat freely, the animals regained at three times the rate
on the second diet than on the first diet. Dieting and
relapse made subsequent dieting more difficult. Epide-
miology studies with humans show positive effects of
weight loss on blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose tol.
erance, and so forth (Simopolous & Van Itallie, 1984).
However, when an equal amount of weight is regained,
the negative effects on blood pressure and cholesterol may
be greater than the positive effects when the weight is lost
(Ashley & Kannel, 1974).
Relapse: Failure or incremental learning? We won-
der whether repeated attempts to change followed by re-
lapse increase or decrease the chance for later success.
There is evidence that persons who have dieted many
times have a poor prognosis (Jeffery et al., 1984; Jeffery,
Snell, & Forster, 1985), although Dubbert and Wilson
(1984) did not find this result. A relapse could be a failure
that strengthens the person's view that the problem is
beyond his or her best efforts. However, relapse may have
positive consequences if the experience somehow prepares
the individual for later success. This more optimistic view
is consistent with Schachter's (1982) suggestion that mul-
tiple attempts occur before many people succeed. A per-
son who relapses may be acquiring information about his
or her weaknesses and may learn ways to prevent lapses
in the future.
This view of incremental learning could be useful
to both professionals and patients. If relapse can be a
constructive experience, experimentation with pro-
grammed relapse might be warranted (Marlatt & Gordon,
1985). This approach involves planning and executing a
relapse that would not occur otherwise, to teach patients
to recover with self-management techniques. This ap-
proach will be discussed in more detail below.
An area that has received little attention is the effect
of patients who relapse on the professionals who treat
them. Following patients through the emotional roller
coaster of success and relapse is discouraging and can
make professionals pessimistic with new patients.
Whether this pessimism is justified depends on perspec-
tive. It is a failure viewed in the short term, but some
long-term effect may occur. Most patients will make other
attempts, and some will succeed.
Determinants and Predictors of Lapse
We make several assumptions here. The first is that there
are similarities in relapse across the addictive disorders
(Marlatt & Gordon, 1985). Our second assumption is
that different processes govern initial change and mainte-
nance (Bandura, 1977a). This assumption has been sub-
stantiated by research on alcoholism (Cronkite & Moos,
1980; Marlatt & Gordon, 1985), smoking (Lichtenstein,
1982; Pomerleau, Adkins, & Pertschuk, 1978; Shiffman,
1982, 1984), and obesity (Brownell, 1982; Dubbert &
Wilson, 1984; Wilson, 1978). The third assumption is
that the risk for relapse is determined by an interaction
of individual, situational, and physiological factors,
The initial attempts to classify relapse situations were
made by Marlatt (1978 ), Marlatt and Gordon (1980), and
Cummings et al. (1980). The Cummings et al. analysis
evaluated 311 initial relapse episodes in drinking, smok-
ing, compulsive gambling, excessive eating, and heroin
addiction. Several determinants emerged, which can be
broadly grouped into individual (intrapersonal) and sit-
uational (environmental) categories. These two categories
are supported by work on smoking (Mermelstein & Lich-
tenstein, 1983; Shiffman, 1982, 1984) and obesity (Dub-
bert & Wilson, 1984). We feel it important to add phys-
iological variables, as their importance is becoming more
clear (Best et al., in press; Brownell, 1982; Lichtenstein,
1982; Myers, 1978; Nathan & Wiens, 1983; Pomerleau
& Pomerleau, 1984).
Individual and lntrapersonai Factors
Negative emotional states. Stress, depression, anxiety,
and other emotional states are related to relapse. Cum-
mings ct al. (1980) found that negative emotional states
accounted for 30% of all relapses. Shiffman (1982, 1984)
evaluated reports of relapse in 264 ex-smokers who called
a telephone hotline service (Stay Quit Line). Subjects were
interviewed soon after the relapse, so reports were recent
even if based only on self-report. Most of the subjects
(71%) had negative affects preceding the relapse, with the
most common mood state being anxiety, followed by an-
ger or frustration, and depression (Shiffman, 1982). Ossip-
Klein, Shapiro, and Stiggens (1984) have also used a tele-
phone hotline to study relapse in smokers. Mermelstein,
Cohen, and Lichtenstein (1983) found that 43% of re-
lapses occur under stress. Pomerleau ct al. (1978) reported
that those who smoke to reduce negative affect are at
increased risk for relapse. A careful study of smokers by
Abrams ct al. (1986) supported these notions by using
physiological, behavioral, and self-report data.
In a study with smokers, Mermelstein and Lichten-
stein (1983) studied both lapses (slips) and relapses.
Lapses were more commonly associated with situational
factors, whereas relapses occurred during negative emo-
tional states or stress events. When the data from these
studies with different addictive behaviors are combined,
it is clear that negative emotional states greatly increase
the chance of relapse. More specifically, negative moods
may increase the chance that a lapse will become a relapse.
Inadequate motivation. It is surprising that so little
work has been done on motivation and commitment. It
would seem that all persons who set out to change are
motivated, particularly those who enter professional pro-
grams. However, there are degrees of motivation, and it
is common for a person to begin the change process in a
burst of enthusiasm without appreciation for the long-
July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist 769
term effort involved. In other cases, the motivationmay
be more external than internal, when social pressure
forces a Symbolic if not.real attempt to change:
There' are three relevant aspects of the motivation
issue. The first is the need to evaluate motivation so~th~
high-risk subjects~can be detected. To our knowledge, this
has not been done in the addictions area..Second, screen-
ing for'motivation is important if treatment should be
targeted at those with a chance for success. Third, meth-
ods may be available for increasing motivation, to improve
a person's "readiness-": for change (Marlatt & Gordon,
1985; Prochaska & DiClemente, 1984)~ The second and
third issues have implications for treatment, as we will
Response to treatment. There is some evidence tha~
initial responses to treatment predict later success. Weight
lo~s in the first weeks of treatment has been related to
success (Foreyt ct al., 1982; Graham, Taylor, Hovell &
Siegel, 1983; Jeffery, Wir~& Stunkard, 1978). Pomerleau
et at. (1978) found that early compliance (self-monitoring)
was related to Oositive outcome:in smokers, and Glasgow,
Sharer, and O'Neill (1981) found that self-reported com-
pliance was related to success in self-quitters. Inability to
stop smoking on the assigned target date (usually midway
in treatment) is a poor prognostic sign (Liehtenstein,
One of us (KDB) has observed informally a para,
doxical relationship between early program adherence
and outcome in persons on very low, calorie diets, a rigid
program that is nearly a complete fast (Wadden, Stun-
kard, & Brownell, 1983). Patients areasked not to "cheat'~
on the dict,. Those who struggle:with adherence to amod,
crate degree seem to do better in the long run than those
whoadhere perfectly from the outset. The perfect~adherers
seem to have trouble recovering from the inevitable slip
that the early perfection merely postpones. It is possible
that highmotivation initially ~can mask strongpressures
to relapse, but once internal and external pressures wear
away restraint, a lapse is likely to become a relapse. Pa-
tients.who struggle to a moderate degree wi~ adherence
throughout a program may do well later becansethey can
cope with temporary setbacks.
Shiffman (1984) found that both
cognitive and behavioral coping responses were associated
with success in smokers calling the hotline mentioned
earlier. The most common behavioral responses were
consumption of food and drink and other distracting ac-
tivities. Several aspeets.of"self-talk" were the most com-
mon cognitive responses. Shiffrnan found positive asso~
eiations between outcome and seven behavioral and five
cognitive methods of coping, but the various coping strat-
egies were about equally effective.
Thereis evidence in the weight control area showing
the utility of a cognitive "threshold" for weight regaitl in
persons who have lost weight (Brownell, 1984a; Wilson,
1985). Stuart and Guire (1978) examined successful
maintainers in Weight Watchers and found them likely
to have a personal regain threshold of three pounds or
less before they instituted self-correcting actions., Bandura
andSimon (1977) found that subjects who used proximal
rather than distal goals were most successful at mainte-
nance. One aspect of the proximal goals was a weight
Another factor that may relate to long-term success
are the coping skills associated with self-efficacy (Bandura,
1977b). Self-efficacy is aperson's belief that he or she can
respond effectively to a situationby using available skills.
This concept is at the root of the relapse prevention ap-
proach of Marlatt and Gordon (1985) and has been ap-
plied to alcoholism (Chancy, O'Leary, & Marlatt, 1978),
smoking, (Brown, Lichtenstein, McIntyre, & Harrington-
Kostur, 1984; Hall, Rngg, Tunstall, & Jones, 1984; Killen,
Maccoby, & Taylor, 1984), and obesity~(Perri, McAdoo,
Spevak, & Newlin, 1984; Perri, Shapiro, Ludwig, Twen-
tyman, & McAdoo, 1984). Several studies have found
measures of self-efficacy associated with positive outcome
(Collctti, Supnick, & Payne, 1985; Condiotti & Lichten-
stein, 1981; Killen et al., 1984; Supnick & Colletti, 1984).
Physiological factors may,be a central determinant of re-
lapse. Genetic factors appear to be important for alco-
holism, smoking, and obesity (MeClearn, 1981; Pomer-
leau, 1984; Schuckitt, 1981; Stunkard et al., 1986). In
the cases of alcoholism and smoking, other physiological
influences are related to withdrawal, to the reinforcing
properties of alcohol or nicotine, or to conditioned as-
sociations between specific cues and physiological re-
sponses (Abrams & Wilson, 1986; Hodgson, 1980; Lud-
wig, Wilder, & Stark, 1974; Pomefleau, 1984; Pomerleau
& Pomerleau, 1984; Poulos, Hinson, & Siegel, 1981; Sic-
gel, 1979). A patient's use of terms like urge and craving
mayreflect some of these pressures.
Siegel (1979) and others (Ludwig et al., 1974) pro-
posed that alcoholics show conditioned reactions to en-
vironmental, emotional, and physiological stimuli that
have been associated with previous withdrawal. Condi-
tioned compensatory responses are thought to elicit crav-
ing for alcohol. Poulos et al. (1981) suggested that treat-
ment must deal with extinction of these cues.
Degree of physical dependency must also be consid-
ered in alcohol abuse (Hodgson, 1980; Marlatt & Gordon,
1985; Miller & Hester, 1980). Several studies by Hodgson
and colleagues found that alcoholics with serious physical
dependency have stronger cravings and respond differently
than:~mildiy dependent subjects to ingestion of alcohol
(Hodgson, Rankin, & Stockwell, 1979; Stockwell, Hodg-
son, Rankin, & Taylor, 1982). Dependency may also in-
fluence the goals and course of ~eatment. Chronic alcohol
use is associated with several cognitive impairments, so
skill acquisition may be more difficult (Wilkinson & San-
chcz-Craig, 1981). If controlled drinking is a viable goal
of treatment, it would be so for only a subgroup of prob-
lem drinkers: abstinence is the clear goal for severe alcohol
dependence (Marlatt, 1983; Miller & Hcster, 1980; Na-
than & Goldman, 1979).
Similarly powerful factors may be associated with
smoking (Abrams & Wilson, 1986; Pomerleau & Pom-
770 July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist
erleau, 1984). A review by McMorrow and Foxx (1983)
showed how changes in smoking behavior accompany
changes in blood nicotine level. Pomerleau (1984) found
that nicotine stimulates release of beta-endorphin, in-
creases heart rate, and possibly improves memory and
attention; therefore he characterized nicotine as a pow-
erful chemical reinforcer. Furthermore, the degree of
physical dependence has implications for treatment. Two
studies found that smokers who are highly dependent on
nicotine benefit most from treatment with nicotine
chewing gum (Fagerstrom, 1982; Hall et al., 1985).
Different but also influential physiological factors
may be involved in obesity. Food does not seem addictive
in the manner of cigarettes and alcohol, yet the physical
pressures to regain lost weight may be extremely powerful
(Bennett & Gurin, 1982; Bray, 1976; Brownell, 1982;
Wooley, Wooley, & Dyrenforth, 1979). Such pressures
could involve the lipid repletion of fat cells and alterations
of several factors including body composition, metabolic
rate, thermogenic response to food, and enzyme activity,
each of which may be related to a body weight "set point"
in which the organism defends a biological ideal against
fluctuations, including weight loss.
Given these important physiological factors, it may
be informative to examine the subjective impressions of
their likely manifestations, namely cravings, urges, and
withdrawal. Studies in these areas have shown inconsistent
findings. The Cummings et al. (1980) study found that
"urges and temptations" were associated with only 6%
of the relapse situations and that "negative physical states"
were associated with only 7% of the situations. Mermel-
stein et al. (1983) found that craving was the major factor
in only 9% of relapses in smokers. In contrast, Shiffman
(1982) found that approximately half of the relapse sit-
uations in smokers occurred in conjunction with with-
drawal symptoms. Even though Shiffman interpreted this
result as showing that withdrawal symptoms are less im-
portant than expected, they would appear from his data
to be powerful precipitating events.
Environmental and Social Factors
There is compelling evidence that environmental and so-
cial factors, including specific external contingencies, play
an important role in the addictive disorders. These can
be interactions among individuals (social support), en-
vironmental or setting events, or programs that manip-
Social support. Social factors are important deter-
minants of susceptibility to diseases, including heart dis-
ease, cancer, and psychiatric disturbances (Cobb, 1976;
Cohen & Syme, 1985). They are important in a person's
ability to make stressful decisions and to adhere to a ther-
apeutic program (Janis, 1983) and have been related to
success in the addictive disorders (Best, 1980; Colletti &
Brownell, 1982; Mops & Finney, 1983).
Research in this area has taken two forms: the eval-
uation of social support as a predictor variable and the
modification of social factors to boost treatment effec-
tiveness. Treatment will be discussed below. The work
with predicting success with social variables has been
Support from family and friends is one of the few
variables that is associated with long-term success at
weight reduction (Brownell, 1984a; Miller & Sims, 198 l;
Wilson, 1985). Studies on smoking suggest the same as-
sociation (Coppotelli & Orleans, 1985; Mermelstein et
al., 1983). Whether a spouse is a smoker and is attempting
to quit relates negatively to ability to stop smoking (Lich-
tenstein, 1982). Perceived general support (not specific
to quitting) also relates to the maintenance of nonsmoking
or reduced smoking (Mermelstein et al., 1983). Mops
and Finney (1983) summarized studies in the alcohol
area showing that marital and family cohesion enhance
response to treatment in follow-ups of as long as two years.
In their review of the relapse area, Madatt and Gordon
(1985) and Cummings et al. (1980) pointed to the im-
portance of social factors across areas of the addictions.
Interpersonal conflict can be viewed as the converse
of social support, and studies have shown that it is a prog-
nostic sign for relapse. In the study by Cummings et al.
(1980), nearly half(48%) of the relapse episodes occurred
in association with interpersonal determinants, with one
third of these coming from conflict. It appears, therefore,
that stressful interpersonal relationships can hinder and
that supportive relationships can help. This emerges from
the literature despite inconsistent methods of measuring
support. The supportive person may be helpful not only
in establishing a benevolent environment but by assisting
with specific behavior changes (Coppotelli & Orleans,
1985). One challenge is to evaluate the nature of sup-
portive behaviors and the reasons certain behaviors sup-
port some persons and not others.
One possible avenue for social support is from com-
mercial or self-help groups. Such groups abound and exist
in all areas of the addictions (Gartner & Reissman, 1984).
Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers,
Overeaters Anonymous, and SmokEnders deliver pro-
grams to millions and reach many more people than do
professional programs. Their potential is tremendous,
both to teach skills and provide social support. Is this
It is difficult to evaluate many self-help and com-
mercial groups. They vary greatly in cost, approach, size,
geographic distribution, and so forth. Different chapters
of the same group sometimes differ as much with one
another as they do with outside groups. It is clear that
many people benefit from these approaches, both in terms
of initial results and maintenance (Gartner & Reissman,
1984). Guidelines are needed to refine the active com-
ponents of these groups and to determine which people
are best suited for self-help approaches.
Environmental stimuli and external contingencies.
Events in the environment can set the stage for relapse.
These typically take the form of social pressure from oth-
ers, exposure to the undesirable behavior during social
events like parties, and cues from situations formerly as-
sociated with the addictive behavior.
Shiffman (1982) found that social events preceded
July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist 771
one fourth of the relapse crises of smokers and that ac-
tivities previously associated with smoking (eating and
drinking) were frequent antecedent events. Marlatt and
Gordon (1980, 1985) also found these to be important
factors. Mermelstein and Lichtenstein (1983) reported
that lapses were most likely under social cues, a social
celebration, or the consumption of alcohol.
?9 Numerous programs have shown that contingency
management and the systematic manipulation of envi-
ronmental factors can enhance motivation. Programs us-
ing financial incentives have been useful in promoting
weight loss in both adults and children (Epstein, Wing,
Koeske, Andrasik, & Ossip, 1981; Jeffery, Forster, & Snell,
1985; Jeffery, Gerber, Rosenthal, & Lindquist, 1983). Re-
ward systems have also been used with some success in
smoking (Lichtenstein, 1982). The careful work of Bi-
gelow, Stitzer, and colleagues has shown powerful effects
of contingency management on drug abuse, alcohol in-
take, and smoking (Bigelow, Stitzer, Griifiths, & Liebson,
1981; Stitzer & Bigelow, 1984). Such work presents spe-
cific components of treatment that may help present re-
External contingencies have most often been ma.
nipulated in the alcohol area. Hunt and Azrin (1973)
used an intensive community reinforcement program in
which family, social, and vocational reinforcers were al-
tered systematically. Among the treatment components
were marital and family counseling, skills training, assis-
tance with daffy needs such as obtaining adriver's license,
a social club for clients, and contingency contracting.
Compared to control clients, those who received this pro-
gram remained more sober, had better employment rec-
ords, and showed several other tangible indications of im-
provement. Azrin (1976) then modified this approach
using Antabuse and an early warning system for relapse.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are another ex-
ample of environmental contingencies influencing alco-
holics (Nathan, 1983, 1984). Participating in treatment
and remaining sober may be a condition for employment.
Some programs for impaired professionals require treat-
ment for continued practice.
Individual, Environmental, and Physiological Factors:
The risk for lapse and relapse is determined by an inter-
action of individual, environmental, and physiological
factors. This is an area in which the distinction of lapse
and relapse is particularly useful, as there may be different
determinants and antecedents in each case. Mermelstein
and Lichtenstein (1983) showed in their findings that
lapses tended to be associated with social factors and that
relapses were associated with individual factors (negative
emotional states :and stress events). Shiffman (1982)
theorized that a situational analysis could predict in-
creased risk for relapse but that coping skills would de-
termine whether this risk becomes reality. Other theorists
have pointed to powerful physiological cravings to help
explain both addiction and relapse (Abrams & Wilson,
1986; Brownell, 1982; Pomerleau & Pomerlean, 1984).
If lapse and relapse are viewed on a time line, in-
dividual, environmental, and physiological factors may
exert their influence at different stages. Physiological fac-
tors may promote lapse and may set into play a series of
reactions to an initial lapse that may increase the likeli-
hood of relapse. The environmental and social factors
can provide the setting, stimuli, and encouragement from
others to lapse. As the choice point for the lapse ap-
proaches, coping skills can prevent the lapse. Whether
the lapse recurs and ends in relapse probably results from.
a complex interaction of these factors, each of which may
assume more or less importance depending on the indi-
vidual and his or her environment.
Prevention of Lapse and Relapse
Traditional Approaches Versus the Prevention Model
Traditional attempts to facilitate long-term maintenance
fall in three categories. The first has been to extend treat-
ment by adding "booster" sessions. As the name implies,
patients are to be "immunized" against pressures to re-
lapse with the initial treatment, and periodic boosters are
needed to maintain the protection. Booster sessions have
been used most ?9 in the obesity and smoking
areas and have been consistently ineffective (Lichtenstein,
1982; Wilson, 1985).
A second approach has been to add more compo-
nents to the treatment package, the most common being
relaxation, contingency management, and assertion
training. This has not been effective. Marlatt and Gordon
(1985) stated, "All of this is heavy artillery--yet all it
may do is project the cannonball a little bit further before
it finally hits the ground" (p. 45). Adding new components
to a package may help, but not enough to prevent relapse.
Adding components may also complicate a package
and compromise the results of otherwise effective treat-
ment. This result would be predicted from the literature
showing that compliance is related inversely to the com-
plexity of a regimen (Epstein & Cluss, 1982; Sackett &
Haynes, 1976). There is some support for this in two
obesity studies in which the combination of an appetite
suppressant with behavior therapy was no more effective
(Craighead, 1984) or even less effective (Craighead, Stun-
kard, & O'Brien, 1981) than behavior therapy alone.
A third traditional approach to preventing relapse
is to adopt a model of lifelong treatment. This model is
inherent in Alcoholics Anonymous, where participants
are always "recovering" and never "recovered." This same
philosophy applies to Overeaters Anonymous and to some
extent to the lifetime membership offered by Weight
Watchers. It may be true that chronic disorders require
chronic treatment. According to our model of relapse
prevention, lifelong treatment has both advantages and
disadvantages. On the negative side, imparting the mes-
sage that a person can control but not cure an addiction
may establish a climate in which lapses create strong ex-
pectations of relapse. On the positive side, lifelong pro-
grams do not have the disadvantage of standard programs
in which intensive treatment is followed by no treatment,
772 ?9 July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist
the point at which relapse may be likely. These approaches
must be considered viable, if for no other reason than
that millions of persons have profited from their use. Pro-
gram evaluation studies are difficult because of their long-
term nature and the problems in doing research on com-
mercial and self-help groups. It is, however, a pressing
need for the field.
We propose that the prevention of lapse and relapse
correspond to the stages of their natural history. The ap-
proach described below is based on the three stages de-
scribed earlier: motivation and commitment, initial
change, and maintenance. We attempt to integrate what
is known about individual, environmental, and physio-
logical determinants of lapse and relapse.
Stage 1: Motivation and Commitment
At this stage, individuals commit themselves to change
and make the first steps toward the modification of mal-
adaptive behavior. There are two aspects of this process
that are pertinent to relapse. One is the development of
methods to enhance motivation. The second is screening
to identify an individual's likelihood of success. Central
to both is the ability to assess motivation and other factors
related to prognosis. This is a pressing area for research,
as good methods do not exist.
Enhancing motivation. Many candidates for pro-
grams are motivated, but many are not. A major challenge
is to enhance motivation when it is low in order to max-
imize readiness for change. Little systematic work has
been done in this area. Education about the dangers of
the addiction, support from others, therapist character-
istics, and feedback about physical status are among the
possible methods for increasing motivation, but even these
factors have not been studied in detail. The field stands
to profit from research targeted at this initial stage in the
One possible approach for enhancing motivation is
to use contingency-management procedures. Monetary
incentives have been studied most thoroughly; the deposit-
refund system is most common. In this system, patients
are required to deposit money, sometimes on a sliding
scale, that is then returned for attendance at meetings or
for a specified behavior change (Hagen, Foreyt, & Dur-
ham, 1976; Jeffery et al., 1983). This approach reduces
attrition (Hagen et al., 1976; Wilson & Brownell, 1980),
but it is not clear whether it enhances motivation prior
to treatment. The deposit-refund may simply deter people
who are not motivated from entering treatment, which
gives it possible utility as a screening device.
It is surprising that so little has been done on meth-
ods for enhancing motivation. The work of Prochaska
and his colleagues is a move in this direction (Prochaska,
1979; Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983, 1984). These
studies have helped define stages of change. The knowl-
edge from these and similar studies may suggest methods
for enhancing motivation in the early stages. Such meth-
ods could have wide application in public health programs
where the goal is to encourage attempts to change.
One important aspect of this early stage is preparing
the individual for the possibility of lapse and even relapse
(Lando, 1981). A fine line must be drawn between pre-
paring a person for mistakes and giving "permission" for
mistakes to occur by inferring that they are inevitable.
Two metaphors may be useful in this context. One is of
a fire drill (Marlatt & Gordon, 1985). A person must
practice to escape a fire even though fires are rare. The
second metaphor is of a forest ranger whose dual tasks
are to prevent and contain fires (Brownell, 1985). The
best course is to prevent fires, but when they do occur,
one must move swiftly before the fire consumes the entire
Screening to determine prognosis. Screening prior
to a program may have two potential benefits. First,
screening may help match individuals to programs. Sec-
ond, screening may focus professional efforts on those
most likely to succeed.
Many potential remedies are available for the ad-
dictions. They range from no-cost efforts at self-change
to expensive commercial and clinical programs. In be-
tween these extremes lie community programs, the media,
self-help books, self-help groups, advice from a health
care provider, and many others. Each approach works for
some people. Screening could be valuable if individuals
could be matched to the approach with the greatest im-
pact at lowest cost. Developing criteria for this matching
is a major need for the field.
The second use of screening is to make use of pre-
dictions of who will do well and who will not. The primary
implication of the search for predictors is that persons
who are likely to do poorly can be identified and can
receive special treatment. This idea is appealing but is
not yet practical. This approach assumes that there is
something beyond standard treatment. In clinical pro-
grams, standard treatment is the most intensive and ef-
fective treatment known, so what else is to be done? In
less intensive approaches, say self-help groups or com-
munity programs, referral to a more intensive approach
may be the answer. However, there are several other tacit
assumptions with this approach. One is that such persons
will succeed if only the right procedures are used. This
assumes the variance in outcome rests with the program
rather than with the individual, which perpetuates the
medical model of disease and cure. The other is that the
cost of such efforts is justified.
Another perspective on screening would shift the fo-
cus from those at greatest risk for failure to those with
greatest chance for success. Screening might be used to
target a program to those most likely to benefit and to
prevent the negative consequences of failure for those at
high risk, assuming that the consequences of relapse are
more negative than positive. The rationale for this has
been discussed previously in the weight loss area (Brow-
nell, 1984b). One reason is that failure, or the more likely
occurrence of initial success followed by relapse, may add
to a legacy of inadequacy and demoralize the patient.
Second, the initial success followed by relapse may have
negative physiological consequences, particularly for di-
eters. Third, the failure may convince the person that the
July 1986 ° American Psychologist 773
problem is intractable, which may decrease the chance
that treatment will be pursued later when motivation is
higher. Fourth, if treatment is delivered in groups, "neg-
ative contagion" can occur when patients who are not
doing well discourage those who are. Fifth, the morale of
professionals suffers when a patient fails. Sixth, working
with patients who are likely to fail leaves fewer resources
for those who may succeed.
The object would be to screen for individual, envi-
ronmental, or physiological factors that cannot be rem-
edied easily. One factor is motivation. It is difficult to
motivate a person who does not have a strong commit-
ment to change. There are instances of programs moti-
vating groups of people, say in a worksite or community
(Brownell, Cohen, Stunkard, Felix, & Cooley, 1984; Pe-
chacek, Mittelmark, Jeffery, Loken, & Luepker, 1985),
but reliable methods for motivating individuals have not
been developed. Another factor relates to a person's skills.
Some skills deficits may be difficult to overcome.
Physiological factors may be among the most im-
portant objects of screening. Our earlier discussion raised
some of the possible variables to be measured, including
physical dependency, metabolic factors, withdrawal, and
genetic loading. It is clear, therefore, that screening will
be a multifaceted activity that will require assessment of
The concept of screening is easier to support in
principle than to apply in practice. Its strength lies in the
ability to separate false positives from false negatives. Us-
ing no screening increases false positives, that is, people
who will eventually fail are permitted into a program. A
screening procedure can produce false negatives (persons
who would succeed are screened out unfairly). It is im-
portant to consider these along with the associated ethical
issues (which will be discussed).
T~o methods for screening. Little attention has been
given to screening, so we can offer only preliminary ideas.
One is a behavioral test of motivation, and the other is
the use of predictor variables. The next few years will
probably offer physiological variables for screening, but
only the tentative suggestions made above are possible
There are several possibilities for behavioral tests of
motivation. The deposit-refund system has been effective
in reducing attrition in obesity programs (Hagen et al.,
1976; Wilson & Brownell, 1980) and has been used in
smoking programs as well (Lichtenstein, 1982). This sys-
tem is usually conceptualized as a means for sustaining
motivation during a program, but it may also serve to
screen out people with low levels of motivation before a
program. Another behavioral test is to institute a
"screening phase" prior to treatment. Patients must meet
established criteria prior to entrance to the program. One
of us (KDB) uses ibis in a weight control program by
requiring patients to lose one pound per week for two
weeks and to complete self-monitoring diaries. These cri-
teria, combined with the deposit-refund system, are not
difficult to meet for most patients, but individuals who
are not motivated may not join a program where such a
commitment is necessary. These are just examples of be-
havioral tests for motivation. More research may identify
The second (even less precise) method for screening
is to use some combination of predictor variables to iden-
tify subjects at high risk for relapse. Marlatt et al. 0984)
found that a motivational rating of desire to quit distin-
guished individuals who could not stop smoking for even
aday from those who could quit for longer periods. As
our discussion above shows, identifying predictors of re-
lapse is not suffcienfly advanced to warrant screening.
With more research, however, this may be possible.
This discussion pertains to clinical programs where
treatment is intensive and costly. Large-scale programs,
say in work sites or communities, may be inexpensive, so
the aim shifts from having a strong impact on small groups
to spreading lesser impact over large numbers (Brownell,
1986; Davis, Faust, & Ordenttich, 1984; Stunkard, 1986).
In this case, the cost of screening may not be warranted.
The ethics of screening. Screening used in this fash-
ion raises complex ethical issues. The decision of who
can enter a program would no longer be based on who
registers first or who can pay the fee, but there would be
a conscious effort to deliver treatment to individuals with
specific characteristics. This affords the opportunity for
treatment to some and denies it to others. Although such
an approach has not been studied, it is likely that certain
subgroups of the population would fall disproportionately
into the "nonmotivated" category. These subgroups might
be characterized by sex, race, ,religion, or ethnic back-
ground, all groups that Western culture protects against
Whether such screening can be justified ethically may
depend on many factors. One is the ability to help those
at high risk. In the absence of proven technology for this
purpose, does screening become more important? An-
other issue is cost. Is the extra cost of aiding a high-risk
person justifiable? Some extra cost may be justified, but
how much? What allocation of these resources will have
the greatest impact on society, or should society be the
primary concern? A third factor will be the sensitivity
and specificity of screening procedures. A screening that
produces few false negatives may be warranted if the so-
cial, psychological, and health costs of false positives are
high, but how many false negatives can be tolerated?
These questions are too complex to address in detail
here. We do feel that screening and identification of those
with high and low chances for success is an issue of major
importance. Who receives treatment is not currently de-
termined by a systematic examination of the issues. It
may happen in a systematic way, but for reasons that we
do not understand and that may not be rational. Avoiding
the questions only sidesteps the ethical issues but does
not make the process of delivering treatment more ethical.
We hope more research will be done in this area.
Stage 2: Initial Behavior Change
This stage of treatment is the intensive period that lies
between screening and the maintenance phase. This pe-
774 July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist
riod may be several weeks in smoking programs and three
to six months in alcohol and obesity programs. This may
not be the time for greatest risk of relapse, because pa-
tients are generally motivated and are gratified with their
changes. However, high-risk situations do occur; therefore,
this time is ideal for the acquisition and practice of skills
specific to relapse (Marlatt & Gordon, 1985). Some of
these have been described in detail elsewhere (Marlatt &
Gordon, 1980, 1985), so the basic rationale for the use
and timing of the procedures will be given here.
The choice of specific treatment procedures is im-
portant, as is the timing of their use. The tendency is to
squeeze all components into the initial treatment period
and to use maintenance to review material presented ear-
lier. This can burden the subject early in a programand
may focus on skills when the skills are not required.
Therefore, the right mixture of relapse prevention strat-
egies in both initial treatment and maintenance may be
one key to positive outcome.
We suggest three areas to be covered in initial treat-
ment (a) decision making, (b) cognitive restructuring, and
(c) coping skills. These are the procedures aimed specif-
ically at the prevention of lapse and relapse and are to be
done in addition to the techniques specific to the treat-
ment of smoking, alcoholism, or obesity. They emerge
from our conceptual approach described earlier and from
existing information on predictors of relapse and the suc-
cess of relapse prevention programs. A fourth area, cue
elimination, has preliminary support in both theory and
practice and may become more important as research
The focus on these three areas does not imply that
they form the sole source of treatment. We do feel that
specific techniques aimed at relapse are desirable in all
stages of the change process and that relapse prevention
techniques may aid any treatment program. For example,
treatment for a dieter might consist of a habit change
program of behavior modification, a supplemented fast,
or even surgery. An alcoholic may receive Antabuse, may
attend Alcoholics Anonymous, or may receive a skills
training program. In each case, specific approaches can
be applied to the lapse and relapse processes and may
improve the prognosis for long-term change.
Additional areas will undoubtedly be added to these
three as knowledge on relapse expands. We do not wish
to imply that these are the only targets for relapse pre-
vention or even that they will be consistently effective.
These are what the literature permits us to propose. Con-
tingency management will probably be added to the list
soon, as studies begin to target these techniques to relapse.
Physiological factors may also emerge as important tar-
gets, but specific physiological interventions aimed at re-
lapse are not evident from current knowledge. The num-
ber of studies on relapse is increasing rapidly. Our hope
is that these will suggest refinement of the areas we suggest
and will identify new areas for emphasis.
The first of the three areas involves decision-making
skills. These prepare a person for analyzing the individual
and environmental determinants of relapse. This analysis
allows the person to decide which coping skills should be
summoned for dealing with a particular situation. Cog-
nitive restructuring is also central to this approach, as it
teaches individuals to interpret events, attitudes, and feel-
ings in a rational way and to respond constructively to
crises. Such a scheme for analyzing the lapse and relapse
sequence and of specifying methods of decision making,
coping, and cognitive restructuring is shown in Figure 2.
This presents examples of how an individual would use
the framework described here to prepare for high-risk
Cue extinction is receiving more attention as a pos-
sible means of preventing lapse and relapse. Based on the
theoretical work of Siegel (1979) and others (Ludwig et
al., 1974), there has been increasing emphasis on extin-
guishing the associations between cues and cravings
(Abrams & Wilson, 1986). There may be individual, en-
vironmental, or physiological associations with substance
use, and their extinction may be particularly important
early in the change process when withdrawal is an issue.
This is an area of potential importance, so more research
is needed to test the theory and to develop clinical ap-
Research is needed to refine the techniques within
these categories and to determine whether these categories
are most appropriate for emphasis during initial behavior
change. Shiffman's (1984) study of relapse in smokers is
helpful in this regard, as he discovered that a combination
of cognitive and behavioral coping skills was associated
Stage 3: Maintenance
Most programs include some treatment during the
maintenance phase, but this period has been virtually
ignored as a point of intervention. With the exception of
booster sessions, which are a reiteration of earlier material,
few studies have used the maintenance phase as the time
for targeting the lapse and relapse process. This is unfor-
tunate, as clinical judgment would dictate emphasis in
just this period. There are three areas of intervention that
may be appropriate for the maintenance phase: (a) con-
tinued monitoring, (b) social support, and (c) general life-
style change. Again, more areas may emerge as research
continues, but these three are suggested by existing re-
It is widely believed that long-term vigilance, either
via some form of self-evaluation or contact with a profes-
sional, is important in the therapeutic process. It is our
impression that individuals profit from monitoring that
extends beyond initial treatment. Treatment studies sug-
gest that maintenance improves as contacts with profes-
sionals increase during follow-up, both in smoking (Col-
letti & Supnick, 1980) and obesity (Perri, McAdoo et al.,
1984; Perri, Shapiro et al., 1984). This must be reconciled,
however, with the general ineffectiveness of booster ses-
sions. In addition, this raises the issue of when treatment
ends and maintenance begins. Additional contacts may
simply extend treatment and delay relapse rather than
prevent it in any fundamental way. Whether these contacts
July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist 775
An Example of Decision-Making and Coping Skills Applied to the Lapse and Relapse Process
Note. Reprinted from Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in Addictive Behavior Change (p. 54) by G. A. Marlatt and J. R. Gordon, 1985, New York:
Guilford Press. Copyright 1985 by Guilford Press. Reprinted by permission. The boxes represent the stages in the process and the circles represent examples
of interventions targeted at each stage.
actually influence relapse may depend on the nature of
the contact and the type of material presented.
Marlatt and Gordon (1985) proposed social support
as a component of relapse prevention. Social support is
a predictor of long-term success, but attempts to intervene
in the social environment have produced inconsistent re-
sults (Brownell, 1982; Brownell, Heckerman, Westlake,
Hayes, & Monti, 1978; Lichtenstein, 1982). We believe
that social factors are crucial in the behavior change pro-
cess (Cohen & Syme, 1985) but that variations in social
relationships make it unlikely that any single approach
will work consistently. For instance, attempts to enlist the
aid of a spouse may have positive effects in some marriages
and negative effects in others. It is not surprising that
parametric studies with groups show no effects for such
programs. This is also an area where developmental work
is needed so that the potential of social support can be
General life-style change may also be helpful (Marlatt
& Gordon, 1985). The theory is that a source of gratifi-
cation can be substituted for the absence of the addictive
disorder. This notion is consistent with clinical experience,
but little research has been done. Likely candidates are
relaxation training, meditation, and exercise. Of these,
exercise has several intriguing possibilities, as we will dis-
A controversial but thus far ineffective approach to
maintenance is programmed lapse. This approach in-
volves a planned lapse in a therapeutic setting and might
include an eating binge for a dieter, smoking for an ex-
smoker, or drinking for a problem drinker. This would
be done only after the person has received extensive in-
struction in the cognitive and behavioral coping skills
mentioned above. The purpose is to have the inevitable
lapse occur under supervision and to demonstrate that
self-management skills can be used to prevent the lapse
from becoming a relapse. It may also be a useful para-
doxical technique; because the therapist controls the lapse,
perceptions about lack of control may change.
Cooney and colleagues tested this approach with
776 July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist
smokers (Cooney & Kopel, 1980; Cooney, Kopel, &
McKeon, 1982). After 5 weeks of cessation, subjects
smoked one cigarette in a controlled session. Most were
surprised by how unpleasant the cigarette was and were
confident they would not smoke later. These subjects had
greater self-efficacy ratings than subjects receiving only the
cessation program, but there were no differences in absti-
nence rates at a 6-month follow-up. In fact, there was a
trend for programmed lapse subjects to relapse earlier.
This approach must be tested further before clinical
use. The potential for harm is great, as the very cognitive
patterns the procedure is designed to counter may pro-
mote uncontrolled relapse. Physiological factors may also
create pressure to relapse. In addition, the studies with
smokers by Cooney and colleagues did not produce fa-
vorable results. It might be a mistake, however, to dismiss
the use of programmed lapse without more thorough
A special role for exercise? The wonders of exercise
have been touted to the point of provoking a backlash,
but there may be a special role for physical activity in the
addictive disorders. Exercise has a natural role in the
weight control field, but there is increasing evidence that
its generalized effects may also benefit patients in the
smoking and alcoholism areas.
Exercise is emerging as one of the most important
components of treatment in the weight control area
(Brownell & Stunkard, 1980; Thompson, Jarvie, Lahey,
& Cureton, 1982). It is one of the few factors correlated
with long-term success (Cohen, Gelfand, Dodd, Jensen,
& Turner, 1980; Graham et at., 1983; Katahan, Pleas,
Thackery, & Wallston, 1982; Miller & Sims, 1981; Stuart
& Guire, 1978). Studies in which exercise is an indepen-
dent variable show improved maintenance of weight loss
(Dahlkoetter, Callahan, & Linton, 1979; Harris & Hall-
bauer, 1973; Stalonas, Johnson, & Christ, 1978).
Three studies suggest the benefits of exercise for
smokers. Koplan, Powell, Sikes, Shirley, and Campbell
(1982) sent questionnaires to 2,500 runners one year after
they completed the l0 km Peachtree Road Race in At-
lanta. Fully 81% of men and 75% of women who smoked
cigarettes when they started running had stopped smoking
after beginning. Giving up smoking was significantly more
common among current runners than among those who
had stopped running in the year following the race. In
the Ontario Exercise-Heart Collaborative Study, 733 men
recovering from myocardial infarction were followed for
three years of an exercise program (Oldridge et al., 1983).
For the 46.5% of the men who dropped out, the two
strongest predictors of dropout were smoking and blue
collar occupation. Shiffman (1984) found that exercise
was used as a coping response in smokers who avoided
The only study in the alcoholism area also produced
encouraging findings. Murphy, Marlatt, and Pagano
(in press) trained heavy drinkers in aerobic exercise (run-
ning) or meditation. The running condition was asso-
ciated with the most significant reductions in drinking
rates during both treatment and follow-up.
If exercise can be used to prevent relapse, there are
several possible mechanisms. It may be a general life-
style activity that brings gratification, and possibly a pos-
itive addiction (Glasser, 1976), to the person who needs
adaptive substitutes for the undesirable behavior (Marlatt
& Gordon, 1985). It may influence self-concept or self-
efficacy, which may generalize to the behavior change
program. It may provide some stimulus control by re-
moving the person to a safe setting or may provide a peer
group that supports healthy behavior. There may also be
physiological effects that influence the appetitive processes
directly or that may change psychological functioning.
These possibilities deserve further exploration.
Effects of Existing Programs
The use of relapse prevention programs is in its infancy,
but many of the existing studies show positive effects. In
addition to the contingency management studies men-
tioned above, which showed positive long-term results,
several studies have used variations of the model proposed
by Marlatt and Gordon (1980). Chaney et at. (1978) first
used some elements of relapse prevention with alcoholics.
They found no differences in absolute abstinence between
the relapse prevention group and two control groups, but
there were significant differences in favor of the relapse
prevention group for duration and severity of drinking.
Hall et at. (1984) used a skills training program for
relapse prevention in smokers. Subjects receiving this
training had greater abstinence rates than subjects who
did not at 6 and 52 weeks from the beginning of the
study. The program had its greatest effect on light smok-
ers. Killen et al. (1984) also found positive effects for re-
lapse prevention with smokers. Brown et at. (1984) used
a cognitive relapse prevention program with smokers and
found promising results in a pilot study but no effects in
a controlled study. Supnick and Colletti (1984) tested the
Marlatt and Gordon (1980) model with smokers and
found that a problem-solving component was associated
with lower relapse rates but that a relapse-coping com-
ponent was not.
Several studies have tested relapse prevention with
dieters. Abrams and Follick (1983) found improved long-
term results by adding a relapse prevention package to a
behavioral program administered in a work setting.
Sternberg (1985) found similar results in a clinical setting,
but using basically the same approach, Collins, Roth-
blum, and Wilson (in press) found no effect. Two studies,
one by Perri, McAdoo et al. (1984) and another by Perri,
Shapiro et at. (1984), found positive effects for a relapse
prevention package. Perri, McAdoo et al. (1984) found
better long-term results for a multicomponent mainte-
nance program than for a control approach using booster
sessions. Perri, Shapiro et al. (1984) then tested various
approaches to maintenance and found that relapse pre-
vention boosted long-term results but only when mail
and telephone contacts were added.
It is too early to draw specific conclusions about
these studies. They vary widely in populations and in the
procedures labeled "relapse prevention." Most are mod-
July 1986 ?9 American Psychologist 777
Research Needs in the Areas of Lapse and Relapse
Questions to be answered
Effects of lapse
1. Is a relapse incremental leeming or a
2. Does the chance of relapse increase
or decrease with time?
3. What are the stages of the lapse
and relapse processes?
4. Is there a "safe" point beyond
which a person will not relapse?
5. How frequent are lapses, and do
they precede relapse?
1. What are the effects on mood?
2. Do lapse and relapse influence self-
3. Do others' reactions influence lapse
4. What are the physiological effects of
lapse and relapse?
5. How do professionals deal with
relapse in their patients?
1. Do various treatments influence
probability of relapse?
2. Does early response to treatment
3. Is past history of success and
4. What are the roles of withdrawal
symptoms, cravings, and urges?
5. What are the roles of conditioning
and compensatory responses?
6. What are the mechanisms of social
7. Do physiological factors influence
8. Can relapse be predicted after
treatment but before
1. What cdterla can be used to screen
2. Does screening influence false
positive and false negative rates?
3. What is the role of exercise?
4. Are cue extinction procedures
5. Is there any role for programmed
6. What are the relevant coping
7. Can motivation be enhanced at
various points in treatment?
8. Is lifelong treatment necessary?
eled conceptually after Marlatt and Gordon's (1980, 1985)
principles, but the application in treatment is different
from setting to setting. Some studies can be faulted for
small sample sizes, short follow-up periods, modest treat-
ment effects, and so forth, so it is not surprising to find
mixed results. The studies with results in favor 0t'relapse
prevention, however, outnumber those with negative re-
sults, so at the very least, more vigorous testing of the
model is warranted.
We hope researchers will continue to test a wide
range of relapse prevention procedures rather than risk
the problem seen in behavioral research for obesity, in
which a "package" was developed and compared to other
approaches. Its statistical superiority was more important
than clinical realities, and the package became standard
fare (Brownell, 1982; Foreyt et al., 1982; Wilson, 1978).
Instead of searching for better approaches, investigators
tested small refinements in the package. We should avoid
early adoption of a relapse prevention package and avoid
the focus only on comparative studies to the exclusion of
the less rewarding but more important developmental
studies that will generate useful ideas for clinical testing.
Recommendations for Research
Interest in lapse and relapse is relatively recent, so needs
for additional research abound. The area is ripe for studies
on issues ranging from the natural history of relapse to
methods that patients might employ in high-risk situa-
Table 1 presents a list of research needs suggested
from the various sections of this article. The topics include
both theoretical and practical issues. We hope this will
stimulate work in what is an important area of behavior
Relapse remains one of the most important problems
associated with the addictive disorders. Previous work
suggested that relapse rates and the shapes of relapse
curves are similar across the addictions. This article at-
tempts to move beyond this by identifying commonalities
in the process of relapse, and by pointing to the need for
more information on the natural history, determinants,
consequences, and prevention of lapse and relapse. We
conceptualize behavior change as occurring in three stages
(motivation and commitment, initial change, and
maintenance of change) and propose specific methods for
dealing with relapse at each stage. Writing this article
strengthened our view that each area of the addictions
has much to offer the others; therefore, we support more
interaction among researchers and clinicians across the
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