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Inter-temporal Choice

When asked to delay consumption, people tend to be impatient and discount future rewards more than when offered the chance to accelerate consumption (Loewenstein, 1988). For example, when participants are given the choice between receiving a $50 gift certificate today or a larger one three months later (delay condition), the amount they demand to wait typically exceeds the reduction in value that other participants are willing to accept when given the choice of receiving a gift certificate in three months or a smaller one immediately (accelerate condition). Our studies have supported a constructive-memory explanation (Query Theory) for this asymmetry. Assigned task (acceleration or delay of a gift-certificate) influences the order in which memory is queried for support of immediate vs. delayed consumption. Query order affects the number of resulting patient vs. impatient thoughts. Relative frequency and clustering of impatient thoughts predicts discounting in both task-conditions and mediates the asymmetry in discounting. We have also found support for a causal role of query order. Explicit sequential querying of reasons for immediate vs. delayed consumption in the natural task orders replicates the discounting asymmetry; reversing the natural query order eliminates it. We are in the process of studying this phenomenon among Chinese-English bilingual students in Hong Kong.

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