A theoretical account of cognitive effects in delay discounting

Zeb Kurth-Nelson, Warren Bickel, A. David Redish

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    59 Scopus citations


    Although delay discounting, the attenuation of the value of future rewards, is a robust finding, the mechanism of discounting is not known. We propose a potential mechanism for delay discounting such that discounting emerges from a search process that is trying to determine what rewards will be available in the future. In this theory, the delay dependence of the discounting of future expected rewards arises from three assumptions. First, that the evaluation of outcomes involves a search process. Second, that the value is assigned to an outcome proportionally to how easy it is to find. Third, that outcomes that are less delayed are typically easier for the search process to find. By relaxing this third assumption (e.g. by assuming that episodically-cued outcomes are easier to find), our model suggests that it is possible to dissociate discounting from delay. Our theory thereby explains the empirical result that discounting is slower to episodically-imagined outcomes, because these outcomes are easier for the search process to find. Additionally, the theory explains why improving cognitive resources such as working memory slows discounting, by improving searches and thereby making rewards easier to find. The three assumptions outlined here are likely to be instantiated during deliberative decision-making, but are unlikely in habitual decision-making. We model two simple implementations of this theory and show that they unify empirical results about the role of cognitive function in delay discounting, and make new neural, behavioral, and pharmacological predictions.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)1052-1064
    Number of pages13
    JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
    Issue number7
    StatePublished - Apr 2012


    • Cognitive resources
    • Delay discounting
    • Episodic future thinking
    • Working memory

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