By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Founding Editor, bSci21.org
A recent study by William DeHart and Amy Odum in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior found that our tendency to act impulsively — to make choices in the moment for immediate gratification — can be more or less likely depending on how we think about time.
Impulsivity is commonly measured through something known as delay discounting, or the tendency for people to devalue consequences that are further into the future. For example, you might take $20 now rather than $100 two weeks from now, or you might smoke that cigarette now and worry about the delayed health consequences later.
But how we think about “later” and “delayed” might change how we discount future consequences.
To explore this possibility, DeHart and Odum recruited 76 participants at Utah State University who completed a delay discounting task involving money. Participants were presented with the following question: “Would you prefer $50 now or $100 in (delay)?” Based on their response, researchers adjusted the immediate amount over several subsequent questions to find the point at which participants were indifferent to the options.
The questions were then repeated for different time delays. Depending on the condition, time itself was discussed in terms of: (a) weeks or months, (b) specific dates, or (c) number of days.
DeHart and Odum found that participants were most impulsive when time was discussed as number of days into the future. The least impulsive participants were those in which time was discussed as a specific date in the future. Discussing time in terms of weeks or months was somewhere in the middle.
But why would one’s conceptualization of time affect impulsivity?
DeHart and Odum have a few possible explanations. Talking about time as a high number of days may have prompted participants to stop attending to the delayed option entirely, whereas the opposite may be true of the date condition. Moreover a higher number may evoke more impulsivity regardless of the unit of time, for example hundreds of days versus a few years. Lastly, the team cited past research showing that regions of the orbitofrontal cortex become activated depending on how one perceives risk. Participants could perceive a specific date in the future as less risky than number of days.
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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com. Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues. He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at email@example.com.