Adaptive intertemporal preferences in foraging-style environments

Michael T. Bixter, Christian C. Luhmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Decision makers often face choices between smaller more immediate rewards and larger more delayed rewards. For example, when foraging for food, animals must choose between actions that have varying costs (e.g., effort, duration, energy expenditure) and varying benefits (e.g., amount of food intake). The combination of these costs and benefits determine what optimal behavior is. In the present study, we employ a foraging-style task to study how humans make reward-based choices in response to the real-time constraints of a dynamic environment. On each trial participants were presented with two rewards that differed in magnitude and in the delay until their receipt. Because the experiment was of a fixed duration, maximizing earnings required decision makers to determine how to trade off the magnitude and the delay associated with the two rewards on each trial. To evaluate the extent to which participants could adapt to the decision environment, specific task characteristics were manipulated, including reward magnitudes (Experiment 1) and the delay between trials (Experiment 2). Each of these manipulations was designed to alter the pattern of choices made by an optimal decision maker. Several findings are of note. First, different choice strategies were observed with the manipulated environmental constraints. Second, despite contextually-appropriate shifts in behavior between conditions in each experiment, choice patterns deviated from theoretical optimality. In particular, the delays associated with the rewards did not exert a consistent influence on choices as required by exponential discounting. Third, decision makers nevertheless performed surprisingly well in all task environments with any deviations from strict optimality not having particularly deleterious effects on earnings. Taken together, these results suggest that human decision makers are capable of exhibiting intertemporal preferences that reflect a variety of environmental constraints.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberArticle 93
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue number7 JUN
StatePublished - 2013


  • Discounting
  • Dynamic decision-making
  • Foraging theory
  • Intertemporal choice
  • Optimality


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