Individual Differences in Intertemporal Choice

Intertemporal choice involves deciding between smaller, sooner and larger, later rewards. People tend to prefer smaller rewards that are available earlier to larger rewards available later, a phenomenon referred to as temporal or delay discounting. Despite its ubiquity in human and non-human animals, temporal discounting is subject to considerable individual differences. Here, we provide a critical narrative review of this literature and make suggestions for future work. We conclude that temporal discounting is associated with key socio-economic and health-related variables. Regarding personality, large-scale studies have found steeper temporal discounting to be associated with higher levels of self-reported impulsivity and extraversion; however, effect sizes are small. Temporal discounting correlates negatively with future-oriented cognitive styles and inhibitory control, again with small effect sizes. There are consistent associations between steeper temporal discounting and lower intelligence, with effect sizes exceeding those of personality or cognitive variables, although socio-demographic moderator variables may play a role. Neuroimaging evidence of brain structural and functional correlates is not yet consistent, neither with regard to areas nor directions of effects. Finally, following early candidate gene studies, recent Genome Wide Association Study (GWAS) approaches have revealed the molecular genetic architecture of temporal discounting to be more complex than initially thought. Overall, the study of individual differences in temporal discounting is a maturing field that has produced some replicable findings. Effect sizes are small-to-medium, necessitating future hypothesis-driven work that prioritizes large samples with adequate power calculations. More research is also needed regarding the neural origins of individual differences in temporal discounting as well as the mediating neural mechanisms of associations of temporal discounting with personality and cognitive variables.

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