Mechanisms of impulsive choice: Experiments to explore and models to map the empirical terrain

Travis R. Smith, Robert Southern, Kimberly Kirkpatrick

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Impulsive choice is preference for a smaller-sooner (SS) outcome over a larger-later (LL) outcome when LL choices result in greater reinforcement maximization. Delay discounting is a model of impulsive choice that describes the decaying value of a reinforcer over time, with impulsive choice evident when the empirical choice-delay function is steep. Steep discounting is correlated with multiple diseases and disorders. Thus, understanding the processes underlying impulsive choice is a popular topic for investigation. Experimental research has explored the conditions that moderate impulsive choice, and quantitative models of impulsive choice have been developed that elegantly represent the underlying processes. This review spotlights experimental research in impulsive choice covering human and nonhuman animals across the domains of learning, motivation, and cognition. Contemporary models of delay discounting designed to explain the underlying mechanisms of impulsive choice are discussed. These models focus on potential candidate mechanisms, which include perception, delay and/or reinforcer sensitivity, reinforcement maximization, motivation, and cognitive systems. Although the models collectively explain multiple mechanistic phenomena, there are several cognitive processes, such as attention and working memory, that are overlooked. Future research and model development should focus on bridging the gap between quantitative models and empirical phenomena.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)355-391
Number of pages37
JournalLearning and Behavior
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Psychonomic Society, Inc.


  • Cognitive mechanisms
  • Delay discounting
  • Impulsive choice
  • Interval timing
  • Psychophysics
  • Quantitative models

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


Dive into the research topics of 'Mechanisms of impulsive choice: Experiments to explore and models to map the empirical terrain'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this