Postreward delays and systematic biases in measures of animal temporal discounting

Tommy C. Blanchard, John M. Pearson, Benjamin Y. Hayden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


Intertemporal choice tasks, which pit smaller/sooner rewards against larger/later ones, are frequently used to study time preferences and, by extension, impulsivity and self-control. When used in animals, many trials are strung together in sequence and an adjusting buffer is added after the smaller/sooner option to hold the total duration of each trial constant. Choices of the smaller/sooner option are not reward maximizing and so are taken to indicate that the animal is discounting future rewards. However, if animals fail to correctly factor in the duration of the postreward buffers, putative discounting behavior may instead reflect constrained reward maximization. Here, we report three results consistent with this discounting-free hypothesis. We find that (i) monkeys are insensitive to the association between the duration of postreward delays and their choices; (ii) they are sensitive to the length of postreward delays, although they greatly underestimate them; and (iii) increasing the salience of the postreward delay biases monkeys toward the larger/later option, reducing measured discounting rates. These results are incompatible with standard discounting-based accounts but are compatible with an alternative heuristic model. Our data suggest that measured intertemporal preferences in animals may not reflect impulsivity, or even mental discounting of future options, and that standard human and animal intertemporal choice tasks measure unrelated mental processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15491-15496
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number38
StatePublished - Oct 17 2013


  • Animal models
  • Delay discounting
  • Foraging
  • Patience
  • Rhesus macaque


Dive into the research topics of 'Postreward delays and systematic biases in measures of animal temporal discounting'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this