Discounting of Past Outcomes

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Drug use, abuse, and addiction are common behavioral manifestations of impulsiveness. A useful and popular laboratory analogue of impulsiveness is temporal discounting. Temporal discounting refers to the reduction in the present, subjective value of outcomes that are temporally distant in the future. The extensive literature on temporal discounting indicates hyperbolic discounting, the magnitude effect, and the sign effect. It is possible that the same principles may apply to other dimensions of psychological distance, including past temporal distance. The purpose of the present study was to examine the possibility that outcomes in the past are discounted hyperbolically and at a similar rate to outcomes in the future. The magnitude and sign effects were also examined in past discounting. Indifference points of college students were determined from a paper-and-pencil questionnaire of future and past discounting. The results demonstrate that humans discount temporally distant past outcomes similarly to future outcomes. Discounting of the future and past are qualitatively and quantitatively similar; discounting of past outcomes is orderly, hyperbolic, and consistent with most empirical observations from studies of future discounting, including the magnitude and sign effects. The present study indicates that the discounting of past outcomes is a quantifiable phenomenon, and the results are similar to observations from the established future-discounting literature. Past discounting may be of use in the study of drug-dependent and other impulsive populations. Implications of a relationship between future and past discounting are discussed.

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