Why We Prefer Rewards Now: Present Bias & Temporal / Hyperbolic Discounting

Why can’t you stop procrastinating and focus on working towards big goals in the future? It’s because of the human tendency to value a reward innaccurately depending on how soon it will occur and discount the future problems caused by choosing instant gratification now.

The closer temptation is, the harder it is to resist.

chocolate brownie

For example if they were offered a guaranteed $100 now or $110 in a month’s time many people would choose the $100. That’s despite the best bank savings rate at the moment being about 5% and you’d have to wait 12 months for the interest to total up. So waiting a month would get you more money quickly with no risk, however only a minority of people who think long term choose the $110.

Similarly during Easter many people break their new years resolution to lose weight, eat better and exercise more by sitting at home and gorging on chocolate.

They know that there will be consequences to their choice to eat a whole toblerone block but the benefit of tasty chocolate can be enjoyed now whereas the cost is far off in the distance of future time when they’ll have to burn off all that fat and calories.

As one researcher, Howard Rachlin said in his book The Science of Self-Control:

“In general, living a healthy life for a period of ten years, say, is intrinsically satisfying.

Over a ten-year period, virtually all would prefer living a healthy life to being a couch potato.

Yet we also (more or less) prefer to drink this drink than not to drink it, to eat this chocolate sundae than to forgo it, to smoke this cigarette than not smoke it, to watch this TV program than spend a half-hour exercising”

Gary Marcus author of Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind agrees, stating that:

“I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that this tension between the short term and the long term defines much of contemporary Western life: the choice between going to the gym now and staying home to watch a movie, the joy of the French fries now versus the pain of winding up later with a belly the size of Buddha’s.”


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