Temporal Discounting and Self-Control: How Waiting Kills Value

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Temporal discounting refers to the mental loss of value with respect to remote rewards. People prefer getting an immediate reward, rather than a larger one in the future. At the same time, temporal discounting is one big reason for low willpower. Read on to see how the two are connected.

Creative young woman closing one eye and using pencil to measure an object that is far from her
Temporal discounting makes future rewards look less valuable.
(Image: SeventyFour/Shutterstock)

If a person is given the choice of picking between $900 right now or $1000 in six months, there is a high probability that they pick the first choice. They would rather lose $100 than to wait for six months. This is a very simple example of temporal discounting. In psychology, temporal discounting makes the subjective value of a reward in the future lower than its real value. Thus, it is one of the main causes of low self-control.

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This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Temporal Discounting and Self-Control

Temporal discounting is closely related to self-control and usually heavily influences it. Self-control is based on an important element known as willpower – the energy that keeps us from giving in to temptations. However, willpower is a limited resource and can decrease drastically. Temporal discounting is among the causes of willpower decrease.

When a person wants to start studying for their exams, they are determined to do so, until their friends suggest going out. There are two rewards involved: the immediate fun that they will have with friends, and the good score that they might get in a few days. To get the second reward, they should sacrifice the first and vice versa.

Portrait of baby reaching for a gift box
Immediate rewards are always preferred unless there is a stronger motivation. (Image: Fab_1/Shutterstock)

Globally common experiences show that people go out much more often than they opt to stay home and study. This is a result of temporal discounting. If the student received a bad score at the same time that they went out, they would probably decide to stay home. However, the second reward is further into the future and looks smaller than it really is. Therefore, self-control will lose against temporal discounting.

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Is Temporal Discounting the only Cause of Low Self-Control?

If temporal discounting is overcome, will all self-control issues be solved? Not necessarily. Sometimes people choose one goal despite their fears or dislikes. The reward is not immediate and probably abstract, and temporal discounting has not discouraged them from picking it. Is there a guarantee that the action will be taken? No. Once the person is in the situation, they might develop new goals with higher priority.

Young boy running away from the ocean wave
Goals with higher priority need less willpower. (Image: AKuper/Shutterstock)

For example, if a woman who is afraid of needles decides to donate blood after a few days, she is even accepting to face a fear to get an abstract reward and feel good about what she has done. When she walks into the center and sees the needles and blood bags, temporal discounting is not at work anymore, but fear is. Thus, her primary goal changes from donating blood to avoiding getting needles in her arms. Even though she did not fail at her initial self-control situation, her second goal was contrary to the first and stronger. The first decision took her some days, and the second some minutes.

In such instances, temporal discounting is overcome, and willpower is strong enough, but new elements affect decisions.

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Temporal Discounting and Dual-Motive Conflict

Another reason for low self-control is dual-motive conflicts. Dual-motive conflicts involve two choices, each of which leads to a different result. Often, one decision has immediate consequences, and the other requires a long time. Regardless of the real value of each decision and its effect on the big goal, the easier choice is usually the immediate result.

For instance, when a person decides to quit smoking and he is offered a cigarette, he faces two choices: to say no and be a healthier person in some months, or to say yes and enjoy a cigarette right now. Most people go for the second choice. Temporal discounting can clearly be seen here. Not smoking one cigarette will not turn the person into a non-smoker overnight, and the result is too far to be perceived as valuable as it is. On the other hand, smoking one cigarette will give an immediate ‘pleasure,’ and it is an easier choice, despite its negative effects and delaying the final result.

The role of temporal discounting is undeniable in situations where self-control fails. To stop its effect, one must avoid situations that create two contrasting goals with different result timings. In the cigarette example, the person should not go around those who smoke. Another way to fight and keep the willpower is to stay focused on the long-term goal. Self-control barriers are not easy to overcome, but not impossible either.

Common Questions about Temporal Discounting

Q: What does discounting the future mean?

Discounting the future or temporal discounting refers to the phenomenon in which the perceived value of a reward loses significance when the given reward is delayed.

Q: What is reward discounting in psychology?

Reward discounting is another name for the concept of temporal discounting in psychology. Simply put, rewards lose their subjective value when they are promised, not given immediately. The more a person has to wait, the lower the value of the same reward gets.

Q: What is the principle of temporal discounting?

In psychology, the principle of temporal discounting is the tendency of individuals to regard rewards that happen in the future as being less important.

Q: What is a delayed reward?

In temporal discounting, a delayed reward is the reward that will be given after a period of waiting. Normally, people give up the delayed reward and pick immediate or early awards, even if they have lower objective value.

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