A Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation

Time discounting and time preference in animals: A critical review

Published: February, 2016

Investigator(s): Dr. Benjamin Hayden

Researcher(s): Hayden. B. Y.


Animals are an important model for studies of impulsivity and self-control. Many studies have made use of the intertemporal choice task, which pits small rewards available sooner against larger rewards available later (typically several seconds), repeated over many trials. Preference for the sooner reward is often taken to indicate impulsivity and/or a failure of self-control. This review shows that very little evidence supports this assumption; on the contrary, ostensible discounting behavior may reflect a boundedly rational but not necessarily impulsive reward-maximizing strategy. Specifically, animals may discount weakly, or even adopt a long-term rate-maximizing strategy, but fail to fully incorporate postreward delays into their choices. This failure may reflect learning biases. Consequently, tasks that measure animal discounting may greatly overestimate the true discounting and may be confounded by processes unrelated to time preferences. If so, animals may be much more patient than is widely believed; human and animal intertemporal choices may reflect unrelated mental operations; and the shared hyperbolic shape of the human and animal discount curves, which is used to justify cross-species comparisons, may be coincidental. The discussion concludes with a consideration of alternative ways to measure self-control in animals.

JTF grant funded: Yes