Impulsiveness without discounting: The ecological rationality hypothesis

David W Stephens, Benjamin Kerr, Esteban Fernández-Juricic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Observed animal impulsiveness challenges ideas from foraging theory about the fitness value of food rewards, and may play a role in important behavioural phenomena such as cooperation and addiction. Behavioural ecologiste usually invoke temporal discounting to explain the evolution of animal impulsiveness. According to the discounting hypothesis, delay reduces the fitness value of the delayed food. We develop an alternative model for the evolution of impulsiveness that does not require discounting. We show that impulsive or short-sighted rules can maximize long-term rates of food intake. The advantages of impulsive rules come from two sources. First, naturally occurring choices have a foreground-background structure that reduces the long-term cost of impulsiveness. Second, impulsive rules have a discrimination advantage because they tend to compare smaller quantities. Discounting contributes little to this result. Although we find that impulsive rules are optimal in a simple foreground-background choice situation in the absence of discounting, in contrast we do not find comparable impulsiveness in binary choice situations even when there is strong discounting.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2459-2465
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1556
StatePublished - Dec 7 2004


  • Choice
  • Discounting
  • Foraging
  • Impulsivity


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