On the Complexity of Discounting, Choice Situations, and People

  • Leonard GreenEmail author
  • Joel Myerson
Special Issue on Addictions


Although steep delay discounting is associated with various behavioral problems, perhaps most prominently substance abuse, we argue that it is best not conceived of as a character flaw such as impulsivity. Such a view, although part of a centuries-old tradition, does not distinguish between actions whose outcomes involve gains and losses, or between delayed outcomes and probabilistic outcomes, nor does it acknowledge that how steeply an individual discounts one of these kinds of outcome appears to be independent of how steeply they discount other kinds. Therefore, we advocate an approach that does not require making judgments about the character of the individuals involved. We show that when drug-dependent individuals are compared with controls, a substantial number of the drug-dependent individuals discount delayed monetary rewards less steeply than the average (median) member of the control group. Moreover, a substantial number of the controls discount more steeply than the average drug-dependent individual. Finally, we point out that many everyday choice situations differ from those studied in most discounting experiments in that they involve both gains and losses as well as qualitatively different outcomes that may be both delayed and probabilistic. Past research on discounting that focused on simple choice situations has provided a solid foundation, but research on more complicated situations is now needed. We believe that the principles revealed by such research will both inform the choices of treatment providers and improve our understanding of the complicated decisions that people face every day.


Discounting Impulsivity Drug-dependence Delay Probability Gains Losses 



Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AG058885.


  1. Bernhardt, N., Nebe, S., Pooseh, S., Sebold, M., Sommer, C., Birkenstock, J., et al. (2017). Impulsive decision making in young adult social drinkers and detoxified alcohol-dependent patients: A cross-sectional and longitudinal study. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 41, 1794–1807.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Coffey, S. F., Gudleski, G. D., Saladin, M. E., & Brady, K. T. (2003). Impulsivity and rapid discounting of delayed hypothetical rewards in cocaine-dependent individuals. Experimental & Clinical Psychopharmacology, 11, 18–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Estle, S. J., Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2019). When immediate losses are followed by delayed gains: Additive hyperboloid discounting models. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.Google Scholar
  4. Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2010). Experimental and correlational analyses of delay and probability discounting. In G. J. Madden & W. K. Bickel (Eds.), Impulsivity: The behavioral and neurological science of discounting (pp. 67–92). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2013). How many impulsivities? A discounting perspective. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 99, 3–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2018). Preference reversals, delay discounting, rational choice, and the brain. In J. L. Bermúdez (Ed.), Self-control, decision theory, and rationality: New essays (pp. 121–146). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Heil, S. H., Johnson, M. W., Higgins, S. T., & Bickel, W. K. (2006). Delay discounting in currently using and currently abstinent cocaine-dependent outpatients and non-drug-using matched controls. Addictive Behaviors, 31, 1290–1294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R. F., Förster, G., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Everyday temptations: an experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 102, 1318–1335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Huskinson, S. L., Myerson, J., Green, L., Rowlett, J. K., Woolverton, W. L., & Freeman, K. B. (2016). Shallow discounting of delayed cocaine by male rhesus monkeys when immediate food is the choice alternative. Experimental & Clinical Psychopharmacology, 24, 456–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Huskinson, S. L., Woolverton, W. L., Green, L., Myerson, J., & Freeman, K. B. (2015). Delay discounting of food by rhesus monkeys: Cocaine and food choice in isomorphic and allomorphic situations. Experimental & Clinical Psychopharmacology, 23, 184–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Johnson, M. W., Bickel, W. K., Baker, F., Moore, B. A., Badger, G. J., & Budney, A. J. (2010). Delay discounting in current and former marijuana-dependent individuals. Experimental & Clinical Psychopharmacology, 18, 99–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Killeen, P. R. (2009). An additive-utility model of delay discounting. Psychological Review, 116, 602–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Killeen, P. R. (2015). Models of ADHD: Five ways smaller sooner is better. Journal of Neuroscience Methods, 252, 2–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lee, W. (1953). Junkie: Confessions of an unredeemed drug addict. New York: Ace Books.Google Scholar
  15. MacKillop, J., Amlung, M. T., Few, L. R., Ray, L. A., Sweet, L. H., & Munafò, M. R. (2011). Delayed reward discounting and addictive behavior: a meta-analysis. Psychopharmacology, 216(3), 305–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. MacKillop, J., Weafer, J., Gray, J. C., Oshri, A., Palmer, A., & de Wit, H. (2016). The latent structure of impulsivity: impulsive choice, impulsive action, and impulsive personality traits. Psychopharmacology, 233, 3361–3370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Madden, G. J., & Bickel, W. K. (2010). Impulsivity: The behavioral and neurological science of discounting. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. McKeon, R. (Ed.). (1941). The basic works of Aristotle. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  19. Mejía-Cruz, D., Green, L., Myerson, J., Morales-Chainé, S., & Nieto, J. (2016). Delay and probability discounting by drug-dependent cocaine and marijuana users. Psychopharmacology, 233, 2705–2714.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Milyavskaya, M., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). What’s so great about self-control? Examining the importance of effortful self-control and temptation in predicting real-life depletion and goal attainment. Social Psychological & Personality Science, 8, 603–611.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Mischel, W. (1973). Toward a cognitive social learning reconceptualization of personality. Psychological Review, 80, 252–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Moeller, F. G., Barratt, E. S., Dougherty, D. M., Schmitz, J. M., & Swann, A. C. (2001). Psychiatric aspects of impulsivity. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 1783–1793.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Myerson, J., Green, L., Hanson, J. S., Holt, D. D., & Estle, S. J. (2003). Discounting of delayed and probabilistic rewards: Processes and traits. Journal of Economic Psychology, 24, 619–635.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Myerson, J., Green, L., & Warusawitharana, M. (2001). Area-under-the-curve as a measure of discounting. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 76, 235–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Myerson, J., Green, van den Berk-Clark, C., & Grucza, R. A. (2015). Male, but not female, alcohol-dependent African Americans discount delayed gains more steeply than propensity-score matched controls. Psychopharmacology, 232, 4493–4503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Pietras, C. J., Locey, M. L., & Hackenberg, T. D. (2003). Human risky choice under temporal constraints: Tests of an energy-budget model. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 80, 59–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rung, J. M., & Madden, G. J. (2018). Experimental reductions of delay discounting and impulsive choice: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 147, 1349–1381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Shah, A. K., Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2012). Some consequences of having too little. Science, 338, 682–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. van den Berk-Clark, C., Myerson, J., Green, L., & Grucza, R. A. (2018). Past trauma and future choices: Differences in discounting in low-income, urban African Americans. Psychological Medicine, 48, 2702–2709.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Vanderveldt, A., Green, L., & Myerson, J. (2015). Discounting of monetary rewards that are both delayed and probabilistic: Delay and probability combine multiplicatively, not additively. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 41, 148–162.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychological & Brain SciencesWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA

Personalised recommendations