Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Control of Impulsive Choice through Biasing Instructions

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Control of Impulsive Choice through Biasing Instructions

Article excerpt

College students repeatedly chose between an immediate, small reinforcer (viewing animated cartoons for 15 s then waiting 75 s before the next trial) and a delayed, large reinforcer (a delay of 55 s, then a viewing period of 25 s, followed by 10 s of waiting). Participants were classified as impulsive if, in Session 1, they chose the immediate, small reinforcer on at least 70% of trials, or as self-controlled if they chose it on 30% or less. In Session 2, informing impulsive participants about how much viewing time each schedule offered reduced but did not eliminate impulsive responding. Informing self-controlled participants about the different delays had no effect. Giving information consistent with previous preferences resulted in continuation of those preferences. The persistence of impulsive responding despite contrary instructions suggests a heightened tendency to discount the value of delayed reinforcers, a process implicated in drug dependence and other pathologies.

Given repeated opportunities to choose between an immediate, small reinforcer and a delayed, large reinforcer, some adults may exhibit "impulsivity" by consistently choosing the former alternative whereas others may exhibit "self-control" by consistently choosing the latter. The extent to which individual differences appear depends partly on the relative size of the reinforcers. In an experiment by Navarick (1998), the reinforcer was videos of animated cartoons. The size of the reinforcer was defined as the period of time for which the video was played on each trial. Delay of reinforcement was defined as the time between the participant's choice response and the onset of the video. The alternative that represented self-controlled choice consisted of a delay of 55 s, followed by 25 s of viewing, and then a waiting period of 10 s before the start of the next trial. The alternative representing impulsive choice consisted of immediate access to a very short, 10-s reinforcer followed by 80 s of waiting, or, in ano ther condition, a somewhat longer, 15-s reinforcer, followed by 75 s of waiting. Impulsive or self-controlled responding was defined as choice of the corresponding alternative on at least 70% of the trials. With the 10-s reinforcer, almost all of the participants showed self-control across two sessions. With the 15-s reinforcer, the group was split between 40% impulsive and 40% self-controlled responders, and these choice patterns were maintained across both sessions.

A possible interpretation of the impulsive choice was that it may have resulted from a failure to discriminate between the small and large reinforcers. The participants were instructed before the first session that the schedules may differ in delay and/or amount of reinforcement but they were not given the relative or absolute values of the parameters. These instructions were previously found to be necessary to establish schedule control when choice was studied in a single session using videos as reinforcers (Navarick, 1996). Prior to the second session, the participants were informed that the procedures would be the same as in the first session. If the size of the reinforcers had been specified before the second session, it is possible that the impulsive responders would have shifted to self-controlled choice.

The present experiment investigated the discrimination hypothesis by presenting instructions prior to the second session that were designed to bias choice away from the preference observed in the first session. The term, instructions, refers here to any sort of verbal information presented to the participant. A set of instructions could include a description of a procedure or it could include a request, either explicit or implicit, to perform in a certain manner. To test the discrimination hypothesis, descriptive information was given related only to the parameter to which subjects had exhibited insensitivity in the previous session. Impulsive responders were told which alternative gave the longer viewing time and self-controlled responders were told which alternative presented the video sooner. …

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