Factors Affecting Temporal Discounting in Older Adults

January 2019

Given the choice between a smaller immediate payout or a larger future payout, people generally prefer rewards sooner rather than later, a tendency called temporal discounting.


While most people discount future rewards and consequences to at least some extent, the degree of temporal discounting varies widely from person to person. These individual differences, in turn, are associated with a host of risky behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, gambling, borrowing excessively on credit cards and texting while driving. This study looks at the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying temporal discounting, so more targeted interventions can be developed to minimize its harmful effects.

Key Insights
Memory ability in older adults is associated with temporal discounting, even when controlling for age, gender and years of education.
People with mild cognitive impairment discount future outcomes to a greater degree than cognitively normal individuals.
Executive function (e.g., the ability to keep rules in mind during a task) is not associated with temporal discounting, but is associated with ability to maximize expected value in risky choices.

The researchers studied 100 older adults, both cognitively normal and with mild cognitive impairment, to investigate the association between temporal discounting and both executive function and declarative memory. Study participants completed a neuropsychological testing battery, as well as an intertemporal choice task and a risky choice task.