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Future Discounting or What if I Can't Smell the Steak

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Future discounting, also often referred to as temporal discounting, is a curious behavior in which all of us to a degree value a thing in the present more than that very same thing when access to it is delayed. For example, if I offer you 100 dollars now, and promise that if you hold of I'll giv you 150 dollars in a week, how much is the 150 worth to you at the moment you are making the decision between the two.

It has been consistently observed that people with addictive problems, as well as possibly people with ADD and other impulsive traits will more severely discount the value of a future thing than those not so afflicted. This behavioral trait leads to adverse life consequences for obvious reasons. To use the carrot and stick analogy, the value of a thing serves as an important motivator, and motivation is energy to pursue things.

The image above was drafted for me by a friend to capture this idea. Our hapless dog is so wedded to the present that he fights steel in a fruitless attempt to get the prize. The fox, on the other hand, can smell the future reward and has the motivation to invest in a process to get it. By moving away from the steak he is able to round the corner and capture his reward.

Problems with future discounting can and should be addressed in treatment. Individuals who cannot smell future rewards are deprived the natural motivation to invest in their futures. School, job training, discipline in sports and the arts, are all a function of being able to visualize a carrot vividly enough to want to chase it down. There's a published paper in Frontiers in Psychology titled, 'Do the Powerful Discount the Future Less.' We think you can guess the answer.

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