Decision-Making: A Timeline of Rewards

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Human beings are temporal animals. Our existence is dominated by one theme - time. Like other animals, our reproductive success depends on our ability to make decisions, and our ability to make decisions in turn depends on our ability to perceive time - to access the value of delayed outcomes.[1] However, unlike other animals, we have the capability to see rewards that are delayed far into the future.[2] In fact many of our choices only pay off after months, years, or even decades. [3]By contrast, our nearest evolutionary relatives, for instance, the cotton-top Tamarin monkey can't even wait eight seconds to triple the value of an immediately available food reward. [4]

Our powers for mental time traveling, or prospective thinking as scientists call it, is thought to be aided by the hippocampus and Para-hippocampal cortex of our brain, which allows us to run mental simulations to evaluate future pay offs.[5] But we must not only be able to see potential future pay-offs, we must also be able to connect those future rewards with the concrete behavioral responses needed to achieve them[6].

Throughout our day-to-day life we must continually and spontaneously remember to link our long term goals to our present behavior - correcting any conflicts between the two by either changing our present behavior or changing our long term goals.[7] Most importantly, optimal decision making requires the ability to overcome immediate temptations in the service of long term goals.[8] For instance, we must overcome the temptation to eat that sweet sweet cupcake in service of the long term goal of weight loss. This is the essence of intertemporal decision-making - decisions in all life domains, whether finance, work, education, or relationships that involve tradeoffs among outcomes at different points in time.[9] “We humans can care about, or at least are capable of caring about, cost and benefits that extends years or even decades in the future.[10]


  1. Namboodiri, Vijay MK, et al. "A general theory of intertemporal decision-making and the perception of time." Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 8 (2014), 1.

  2. Berns, Gregory S., David Laibson, and George Loewenstein. "Intertemporal choice–toward an integrative framework." Trends in cognitive sciences 11.11 (2007): 482-488, 2.

  3. Peters, Jan, and Christian Büchel. "Episodic future thinking reduces reward delay discounting through an enhancement of prefrontal-mediotemporal interactions." Neuron 66.1 (2010): 138-148, 138.

  4. See Berns, supra note 2.

  5. See Peters, supra note 3, at 139.

  6. See Generally Sheeran, Paschal, Thomas L. Webb, and Peter M. Gollwitzer. "The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31.1 (2005): 87-98. (Talks about implementation intentions which specify “the behavior one will perform in the service of the goal and the situational context in which one will enact it (i.e., ‘If situation Y arises, then I will initiate goal-directed behavior Z!’)”

  7. Dixon, Matthew L., and Kalina Christoff. "The lateral prefrontal cortex and complex value-based learning and decision making." Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 45 (2014): 9-18. In pertinent part:

    In many cases,a future reward is not present or even cued by the environmentand must be recalled from long-term memory to guide behavior.For example, while at home, a student may recall the mem-ory of a future desired outcome (e.g., obtaining an ‘A’ in physicsclass) and this may provide an overarching context that trigg-ers a set of studying rules that in turn guide a set of actions(e.g., pulling out the class textbook and highlighting importantpoints).

  8. Heatherton, Todd F., and Dylan D. Wagner. "Cognitive neuroscience of self-regulation failure." Trends in cognitive sciences 15.3 (2011): 132-139, 134. (“The ability to transcend immediate temptations in the service of long-term goals is a key aspect of self-regulation.”)

  9. id

  10. See Berns, supra note 2.