Impulsive Decision Making and Working Memory

Authors: John M. Hinson, Washington State University; Tina L. Jameson, Washington State University; Paul Whitney, Washington State University

Publication: Journal of Experimental Psychology

Year: 2003

Focus Area: Decision Making, Memory

Relevance: Decision making processes, and the complex factors that influence them, are significant to understanding why people fall for frauds and how scam artists manipulate their victims. This research examines the importance of working memory in valuing monetary rewards over different time periods.

Summary: When working memory is limited, people will discount future rewards more heavily, which leads to more impulsive decision making and an emphasis on immediate rewards.

  • Researchers were able to elicit impulsive decision making from subjects by asking the subjects to remember a series of numbers (a working memory task) while they chose between two monetary rewards, one available immediately and the second, larger reward, available after a randomly assigned amount of time.
  • When researchers increased the number of reward options available to the subjects, people preferred immediate rewards and discounted the delayed rewards more heavily.
  • People who had high scores on a test of impulsiveness were more likely to choose immediate rewards, as were people with low executive function. (Executive function is involved in planning, resisting temptation, and successfully navigating new situations.)

Author Abstract: Decision making that favors short-term over long-term consequences of action, defined as impulsive or temporally myopic, may be related to individual differences in the executive functions of working memory (WM). In the first 2 experiments, participants made delay discounting (DD) judgments under different WM load conditions. In a 3rd experiment, participants high or low on standardized measures of impulsiveness and dysexecutive function were asked to make DD judgments. A final experiment examined WM load effects on DD when monetary rewards were real rather than hypothetical. The results showed that higher WM load led to greater discounting of delayed monetary rewards. Further, a strong direct relation was found between measures of impulsiveness, dysexecutive function, and discounting of delayed rewards. Thus, limits on WM function, either intrinsic or extrinsic, are predictive of a more impulsive decision-making style.

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