People discount delayed gains (where the default is to receive a smaller gain sooner) more than accelerated gains (where the default is to receive a larger gain later). For losses, the pattern is reversed — people discount delayed losses less than accelerated losses. In Study 1, confirming a Query Theory process account, these effects are driven by the clustering of queries for arguments supporting the two choice options and the resulting number of thoughts in favor of the default option. Specifically, thoughts in favor of the smaller, sooner amount are more prominent in delay scenarios than acceleration scenarios for both gains and losses. This mediates the effect of direction (delay vs. acceleration) on discounting for gains and losses, with the prominence of thoughts in favor of the smaller, sooner amount increasing discounting for gains and decreasing discounting for losses. Study 2 confirms the causal role of the order in which options are considered. Participants asked to consider thoughts in the natural order (listing thoughts in favor of the default first) replicate the sign (gain vs. loss) by direction interaction found in Study 1. Participants asked to consider thoughts in the opposite, unnatural order (listing thoughts in favor of the alternative first) do not show differences in discounting between delay and acceleration for gains or for losses. In other words, reversing the order in which options are considered eliminates the sign by direction interaction. These results suggest interventions for intertemporal choice dilemmas in domains from personal finance to health to environmental conservation.
Appelt, Kirstin, D. Hardisty, and Elke Weber. "Asymmetric Discounting of Gains and Losses: A Query Theory Account." Working paper, Columbia Business School, February 9, 2011.
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