Karen Lionello-DeNolf, Assumption University – Tempting Choices and Outcome Devaluation

On Assumption University Week: Every day we face many choices; how do we make the best ones for long-term benefits?

Karen Lionello-DeNolf, associate professor of psychology and director of the applied behavior analysis programs, delves into this type of decision making.

Dr. Lionello-DeNolf is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Applied Behavior Analysis Programs at Assumption University. She completed her graduate training in experimental psychology at Purdue University. She is the Associate Editor for Translational Research for the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Her research interests are in the areas of experimental and applied behavior analysis, autism spectrum disorders, and relational learning. Current research projects include exploring how learning history influences people’s willingness to cooperate with others in a shared task, best practices in training service delivery staff to implement teaching programs to children with autism spectrum disorder, and analysis of college-student cheating behavior from the perspective of probability discounting.

Tempting Choices and Outcome Devaluation

Imagine that you just received a 5% salary increase. You could save it for retirement, improving your long-term situation. Or spend it on something bringing immediate enjoyment, like a vacation.

Or imagine a new season of your favorite streaming program has just dropped. You could spend the weekend binge-watching, or you could watch an episode and tackle your to-do list.

Choices like this are ubiquitous in everyday life, and they all represent immediate temptations pitted against better outcomes in the future. While giving into temptation occasionally isn’t harmful, consistently doing so is.

Researchers have developed behavioral tasks that model these types of choices, and results have been correlated with a host of risky behavior, like substance abuse, gambling addiction, obesity, risky sexual behavior, refusal to wear a seatbelt, and texting while driving, among others.

While there are many factors determining choice, one common to all these situations is delay discounting: the devaluation of an outcome when there is a delay to receiving it.

This means that the longer it will be to get the outcome, the less value it has in the moment. For example, although someone in their 20s might say having a healthy retirement account is a priority, since it is decades away, it is not as important now as it will be in 40 years.

Current research is investigating ways to combat delay discounting. One technique is a commitment response, or making the choice when both outcomes are delayed. An example is saving for retirement by using payroll deduction, automatically setting money aside each pay period. Commitment responses can be successful because they move the choice to a time where neither outcome is immediate, thereby reducing temptation. When facing everyday choices, understanding the role of delay discounting is essential for guiding behavior to reach one’s long-term goals.