Intertemporal Choice

An ability to solve an intertemporal choice by being future oriented predicts success in realms ranging from investing to academics to health to one’s social life. In short, being able to delay gratification is a marker of character. People who can do this will be more loyal, more generous, more diligent, and fairer. It’s because dilemmas of intertemporal choice underlie social living that can be so easily applied to economics, not the other way around. After all, self-control didn’t evolve to help us manage economic capital; it came about to help us manage social capital.
Recognition of this fact offers two important benefits. First, it provides a framework with which to unify the study of many types of decisions. Sacrificing time or energy to help someone else will build long term capital, just as saving money for retirement does. What’s more this decision is scalable. The dilemmas posed by climate change, overfishing, and related problems of sustainability are nothing if not intertemporal at base. Solving them requires a collective willingness to forgo immediate profits in the short term in order to reach larger communal benefits in the long term.

The second benefit is the expansion of our toolset for solving associated dilemmas. While economists and self-control researchers traditionally emphasize using reason, willpower, and the like to overcome our inherent impatience for pleasure, realizing the intertemporal nature posed by many moral dilemmas suggests an alternate: the moral emotions. Gratitude makes us pay our debts. Compassion makes us willing to help others. Guilt prevents us from acting in selfish ways. These moral emotions, which are intrinsic to social living, lead people, directly or indirectly, to vale the future. They enhance our character, which, when translated to behaviour, means they help us share, to persevere, to be patient, to be diligent.

Whether it’s to save more, to eat less, to be kind, or to reduce a carbon footprint, the resolutions we make will likely require forbearance. And promoting that forbearance means that all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, should continue exploring in a multidisciplinary manner the mind’s inclination toward selfish, short term temptations and its many mechanisms to overcome them.

Intertemporal Choice
David DeSteno
Professor of Social Psychology, Northeastern University