I Want It Now!

Human vulnerability to unhealthy lifestyles

Posted Oct 10, 2017

 So what do you want now?) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Weighing the future in decision making provides a valuable concept to explain the human taste for instant gratification (e.g., addictions, overeating, and procrastinations).

The main problem with most addictive behaviors is that the costs (adverse consequences) occur in the future, whereas the pleasures from them occur in the present. For example, many of us would prefer to have a healthy body weight rather than eat a piece of cake. The problem is that the piece of cake is available right now whereas the healthy body weight may require time and exertion.  

Immediate rewards weigh disproportionately in our decision making. As the reward becomes more remote, it has less value in the present. The more we disregard our longer-term interests in favor of immediate gratification, the more likely that we will have a range of behavioral problems, including addiction.

Consider, for example, someone who wants to start an exercise program, but doesn’t like to exercise (Laibson, 2001). The exercise program requires, say, an immediate cost of eight units (-8) of value, but will produce a delayed benefit of ten units (+10). That is a net gain of two units (+2), but it ignores the adjustment for the future value. If future rewards have perhaps half the value of present ones, then the ten units (benefits) become only five, and starting an exercise program today means a net loss of three units. So we are reluctant to start exercising today. On the other hand, starting tomorrow reduces both the cost and the benefit by half (to -4 and +5 units, respectively), resulting in a net gain of one unit (+1) from exercising. Therefore, everyone is enthusiastic about going to the gym tomorrow.

The future value is determined by a discount rate. A discount rate indicates how much you devalue a future reward. A high discount rate means that you like to consume stuff now, and are insensitive to the future consequences. A small discount rate means that you don’t mind waiting for reward very much.

The discount rate varies widely across individuals. For example, it tends to be higher among younger persons and in less-educated persons. Young people make different trade-offs from those made by old people. They think of their future selves in the same way that they think of strangers. So they are less concerned about their future well-being. This explains why adolescence and early adulthood are the times when someone is most likely to become addicted (Sapolsky, 2017). The educated may be better informed about risk factors for a particular disease or perhaps better able to process health information.

The degree of delay discounting is a personality trait. It is an aspect of impulsivity in decision-making explaining the inability to follow through with a specific behavior despite an initial motivation to do so (Odum, 2011).

The impulsive behavior might facilitate drug abuse by reducing the weight given to its negative long-term consequences. Addicts display excessive discounting compared to normal individuals. This inability to appropriately weigh delayed rewards can be quite harmful to an addicted person who may be willing to sacrifice future well-being or incur major losses (imprisonment) in exchange for instant gratification (Bickel, and Vuchinich, 2000).

Higher time discount rates could explain why some people are more likely to have unhealthy diets and respond unsuccessfully to interventions aimed at encouraging dietary change. Because unhealthy diets are linked to overweight or obesity, researchers also show that higher time discount rates are associated with being overweight or obese and poor response to weight loss interventions (Barlow et al., 2015).

High discounting also plays an important risk factor for treatment failure. For example, large proportions of addicts report being motivated to change their behavior and do indeed seek treatment, but later voluntarily drop out of treatment or relapse despite successfully completing treatment (Bickel et al.,  2014).

In sum, time discounting is a significant risk factor for unhealthy lifestyle choices and may serve as an important target for intervention. Reorienting an individual away from immediate gratification and toward making more future-oriented decisions is a logical step. Personal discounting rates are not set in stone. They change by experience and education.


Barlow, et al., (2016), Unhealthy diets, obesity and time discounting: a systematic literature review and network analysis. Obesity Review,  17: 810–819.

Bickel WK, Johnson MW, Koffarnus MN, MacKillop J, Murphy JG (2014). The Behavioral Economics of Substance Use Disorders: reinforcement pathologies and their repair.  Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 10:641-677.

Bickel, W. K., & Vuchinich, R. E. (2000). Reframing health behavior change with behavioral economics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Laibson, David I. 2001. A cue-theory of consumption. Quarterly Journal of Economics 116(1): 81-119.

Odum A. L. (2011). Delay discounting: I’m a k, you’re a k. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 96, 427–439. 10.1901/jeab.2011.96-423

Sapolsky RM (2017). Behave. NY, NY: Penguin Press.