Taking More, Now: The Optimality of Impulsive Choice Hinges on Environment Structure A. Ross Otto, Arthur B. Markman, and Bradley C. Love Department of Psychology University of Texas at Austin In Press at Social Psychological and Personality Science Impulsivity is a stable personality trait associated with myopic choice behaviorthat favors immediate rewards over larger, delayed rewards and is often characterized as maladaptive inside and outside of the laboratory. An alternative view suggests that the consequences of trait impulsivity depend on the nature of the task environment. On this view, the optimal level of impulsivity varies across task payoff structures. This hypothesis is tested in two dynamic decision-makingtasks that differ in the relative payoffs of delayed and immediate rewards. In a task that favors delayed rewards to immediate rewards, high-impulsive participants perform worse than low-impulsive participants. In contrast, in a task that favors immediate rewards over delayed rewards, high-impulsive participants outperform low-impulsive participants. These results suggest a more nuancedconceptualization of trait impulsivity as it applies to rewardsrelated decision-making that may help explain the variability observed in this trait across individuals. Keywords: Impulsivity, Choice, Decision-Making, Delay of Gratification
Impulsivity and Choice
Introduction The ability to forego immediate rewards in the service of receiving larger future rewards is often described as a hallmarkof effective self-control in both humans and animals (Logue, 1988; Rachlin & Green, 1972). In this context, impulsive behavior is defined as taking an immediate reward that prevents one from obtaining more valuable future rewards (Ainslie, 1975; Evenden, 1999). In laboratory delay-of-gratification procedures, individuals from impulsive populations are more likely to choose smaller immediate rewardsover larger delayed rewards (Cherek & Lane, 1999). Indeed, self-report measures suggest that impulsivity is a stable personality trait associated with a range of pathological behaviors such as substance abuse, gambling and binge eating (De Wit, 2008; Patton et al., 1995; Perry & Carroll, 2008) as well as laboratory-assessed risk-taking (Lejuez et al., 2002). Much of contemporary research castsimpulsivity as a maladaptive trait that predicts negative behaviors and consequences inside and outside of the laboratory (e.g., Mischel et al., 1989). Further, a number of investigations present converging evidence supporting the heritability of the personality trait (Congdon & Canli, 2008). From an evolutionary standpoint, it is puzzling why humans would exhibit continued variability in a trait ifit appears to result only in maladaptive behavior. Are there benefits, under any set of circumstances, to impulsive decision-making behavior? In this report, we consider the notion that the behavioral consequences of trait impulsivity hinge on the structure of the environment in which the decision-maker is placed. A highly impulsive person who makes choices as if each day is his or her last isunliklely to exhibit adaptive behavior in modern society, which rewards sacrifices in the short term (such as working rather than playing). Nonetheless, a person who focuses only on the far term may not live long enough to see her sacrifices rewarded. Thus, for any given environment, there is an ideal tradeoff between attention to the short-term and long-term. In this study, we find thatself-assessed trait impulsivity predicts how individuals from a non-clinical population adapt to changing rewards in the environment, which, depending on the structure of the environment, benefit or hinder overall task performance. As a broad example, consider the conflict between short- and long-term goals facing the excutive of an expanding company. At each choice point, she can decide to invest in new...