Search predicts and changes patience in intertemporal choice

Reeck, Crystal; Wall, Daniel; Johnson, Eric J.

Intertemporal choice impacts many important outcomes, such as decisions about health, education, wealth, and the environment. However, the psychological processes underlying decisions involving outcomes at different points in time remain unclear, limiting opportunities to intervene and improve people’s patience. This research examines information-search strategies used during intertemporal choice and their impact on decisions. In experiment 1, we demonstrate that search strategies vary substantially across individuals. We subsequently identify two distinct search strategies across individuals. Comparative searchers, who compare features across options, discount future options less and are more susceptible to acceleration versus delay framing than integrative searchers, who integrate the features of an option. Experiment 2 manipulates search using an unobtrusive method to establish a causal relationship between strategy and choice, randomly assigning participants to conditions promoting either comparative or integrative search. Again, comparative search promotes greater patience than integrative search. Additionally, when participants adopt a comparative search strategy, they also exhibit greater effects of acceleration versus delay framing. Although most participants reported that the manipulation did not change their behavior, promoting comparative search decreased discounting of future rewards substantially and speeded patient choices. These findings highlight the central role that heterogeneity in psychological processes plays in shaping intertemporal choice. Importantly, these results indicate that theories that ignore variability in search strategies may be inadvertently aggregating over different subpopulations that use very different processes. The findings also inform interventions in choice architecture to increase patience and improve consumer welfare.


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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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October 26, 2018