Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Discounting of Delayed Reinforcers: Measurement by Questionnaires versus Operant Choice Procedures

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Discounting of Delayed Reinforcers: Measurement by Questionnaires versus Operant Choice Procedures

Article excerpt

The ability of a reinforcer to maintain behavior decreases as a hyperbolic function of its delay. This discounted value can help explain impulsivity defined as the choice of an immediate, small reinforcer over a delayed, large reinforcer. Human operant studies using consumable reinforcers such as videos have found impulsivity with delays under 1 min. However, measures of discounting rates using questionnaires that describe hypothetical amounts of monetary reinforcers and delays of days, months, or years have found discounting rates that are much too low to explain impulsive choice in operant procedures. A comparison of discounting rates across questionnaire and operant studies indicates that questionnaires produce slower discounting because of the absence of both reinforcement and consumption processes. Combining reinforcement with questions about future reinforcers could facilitate the integration of questionnaire research into a behavioral framework.

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The ability of a reinforcer to maintain behavior generally decreases the longer the reinforcer is withheld after the behavior occurs. This decrease in reinforcer value over time is known as delay (or temporal) discounting. The precise form of the relationship and the methodology for investigating it have received considerable attention in connection with behavioral theories of impulsivity. In contrast to psychiatric theories, which view impulsivity as a predisposition toward a pattern of behavior (Moeller, Barrat, Dougherty, Schmitz, & Swann, 2001), behavioral theories view impulsivity as a specific choice response in a situation defined mainly by two parameters, amount and delay of reinforcement (Ainslie, 1975; Navarick & Fantino, 1976). Consistent choice of an immediate, small reinforcer over a delayed, large reinforcer represents impulsivity; the opposite preference represents self-control. A behavioral analysis implies that the same individual may exhibit impulsivity or self-control depending on the precise amounts and delays of reinforcement presented for choice (Navarick, 1998). Individual differences under a given set of parameter values would be explained in terms of individuals differing in the rates at which they discount the value of the delayed reinforcer (Johnson & Bickel, 2002).

There are two fundamentally different approaches to investigating human choice between immediate and delayed reinforcers: modification of choice responses through operant conditioning and recording of choices on questionnaires that describe prospective outcomes. Generally, both types of research show decreasing preference for a reinforcer as a function of its delay. However, the rates at which preference decreases are so much slower in questionnaire studies that one may reasonably ask whether questionnaires and operant procedures measure the same discounting process. A comparison of discounting rates across selected questionnaire and operant experiments suggests that the difference in rates is due partly to whether or not a reinforcer is presented and partly to the nature of the reinforcer. The analysis suggests that incorporating a reinforcement procedure into questionnaire tasks could make it easier to interpret questionnaire results within a behavioral framework.

In operant experiments the participant repeatedly makes choices between two reinforcement schedules, the reinforcer being a stimulus that is "consumed" when administered so that it is functionally analogous to food reinforcers in studies with pigeons. Examples of such reinforcers are cessation of noise (Navarick, 1982), a video game (Millar & Navarick, 1984), slides of celebrities (Navarick, 1986, 1987), various kinds of videos (Navarick, 1996), and animated cartoons (Navarick, 1998, 2001). Amount of reinforcement is defined as the duration of the reinforcer and delay of reinforcement as the time between the choice response and onset of the reinforcer. For example, in the studies with cartoon reinforcers, the schedule representing impulsivity was immediate presentation of the cartoon for 15 s followed by 75 s of waiting, and the schedule representing self-control was a delay of 55 s followed by presentation of the cartoon for 25 s and then 10 additional s of waiting (total schedule durations were equalized at 90 s). …

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