The Value of Nothing: Asymmetric Attention to Opportunity Costs Drives Intertemporal Decision Making

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2016.2547

This paper proposes a novel account of impatience: People pay more attention to the opportunity costs of choosing larger, later rewards than to the opportunity costs of choosing smaller, sooner ones. Eight studies show that when the opportunity costs of choosing smaller, sooner rewards are subtly highlighted, people become more patient, whereas when the opportunity costs of choosing larger, later rewards are highlighted this has no effect. This pattern is robust to variations in the choice task, to the participant population, and to whether the choices are incentivized or hypothetical. We argue that people are naturally aware of the opportunity costs of delayed rewards but pay less attention to those associated with smaller, sooner ones. We conclude by discussing implications for theory and policy.

Data, as supplemental material, are available at https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2016.2547.

This paper was accepted by Yuval Rottenstreich, judgment and decision making.

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