Decision makers calibrate behavioral persistence on the basis of time-interval experience

Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 3720 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
Cognition (Impact Factor: 3.63). 04/2012; 124(2):216-26. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.008
Source: PubMed


A central question in intertemporal decision making is why people reverse their own past choices. Someone who initially prefers a long-run outcome might fail to maintain that preference for long enough to see the outcome realized. Such behavior is usually understood as reflecting preference instability or self-control failure. However, if a decision maker is unsure exactly how long an awaited outcome will be delayed, a reversal can constitute the rational, utility-maximizing course of action. In the present behavioral experiments, we placed participants in timing environments where persistence toward delayed rewards was either productive or counterproductive. Our results show that human decision makers are responsive to statistical timing cues, modulating their level of persistence according to the distribution of delay durations they encounter. We conclude that temporal expectations act as a powerful and adaptive influence on people's tendency to sustain patient decisions.

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