What is Intertemporal Choice?
Intertemporal choice refers to the process of making decisions that involve trade-offs between costs and benefits that occur at different points in time. These choices often involve weighing immediate rewards against future benefits or comparing the value of short-term gains to long-term costs. Intertemporal choices are common in everyday life and have significant implications for personal finance, health, and other important aspects of well-being. Behavioral economists and psychologists study intertemporal choice to understand the factors that influence people’s preferences for immediate versus delayed rewards and to develop interventions to promote better decision-making. Research on intertemporal choice has identified several cognitive biases and heuristics, such as hyperbolic discounting and the present bias, which can lead to suboptimal decisions and contribute to a variety of societal problems, including under-saving for retirement and overconsumption of unhealthy foods.
Examples of Intertemporal Choice
Saving for Retirement
Intertemporal choice plays a critical role in financial decision-making, particularly when it comes to saving for retirement. Individuals must decide how much to save for the future versus how much to spend in the present, balancing their current needs and desires against the need for financial security later in life.
Healthy Eating and Exercise
Intertemporal choices also arise in the context of health and well-being. People often face trade-offs between immediate gratification (e.g., eating junk food or skipping exercise) and long-term health benefits (e.g., maintaining a healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity). The choices individuals make in these situations can significantly impact their overall health and quality of life.
Shortcomings and Criticisms of Intertemporal Choice
Assumptions about Rationality
Traditional economic models of intertemporal choice often assume that individuals are rational agents who weigh costs and benefits consistently over time. However, empirical evidence has shown that people’s preferences can be inconsistent, and they often exhibit present bias, which can lead to suboptimal decisions. Critics argue that these traditional models fail to capture the complexity of human decision-making and may not be well-suited for understanding real-world behavior.
Another criticism of intertemporal choice research is that it often focuses on average tendencies and overlooks individual differences in time preferences, impulsivity, and other factors that can influence decision-making. By not accounting for these differences, researchers may miss important nuances in how people make choices across time, limiting the applicability of their findings.
Limited External Validity
Some studies on intertemporal choice rely on experimental designs or hypothetical scenarios that may not accurately reflect real-world decision-making contexts. This can limit the external validity of the findings and raise questions about their relevance for understanding everyday choices and developing interventions to improve decision-making.