Emotional arousal and discount rate in intertemporal choice are reference dependent

Karolina M. Lempert, Paul W. Glimcher, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many decisions involve weighing immediate gratification against future consequences. In such intertemporal choices, people often choose smaller, immediate rewards over larger delayed rewards. It has been proposed that emotional responses to immediate rewards lead us to choose them at our long-term expense. Here we utilize an objective measure of emotional arousal-pupil dilation-to examine the role of emotion in these decisions. We show that emotional arousal responses, as well as choices, in intertemporal choice tasks are reference-dependent and reflect the decision-maker's recent history of offers. Arousal increases when less predictable rewards are better than expected, whether those rewards are immediate or delayed. Furthermore, when immediate rewards are less predictable than delayed rewards, participants tend to be patient. When delayed rewards are less predictable, immediate rewards are preferred. Our findings suggest that we can encourage people to be more patient by changing the context in which intertemporal choices are made.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)366-373
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015


  • Arousal
  • Emotion
  • Intertemporal choice
  • Pupil dilation
  • Temporal discounting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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