The development of episodic future thinking and future-oriented decision making

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Behavioural Sciences


We are often faced with a choice between doing something that has an immediate reward (e.g., spending money on a treat) and doing something that has no immediate benefit but is in the longer-term more advantageous (e.g., saving to buy a house). Choosing the smaller immediate reward over the larger, future reward has been described as "discounting" the larger future reward (i.e., the value of the delayed reward is seen as lower because of how far away in time it is). Such discounting has been extensively studied by psychologists, not least because the choices people make in experiments are predictive of various sorts of potentially harmful real-world behavior (e.g., overeating, gambling, substance abuse). Psychologists are particularly interested in finding out which psychological processes may reduce discounting because this can help them develop appropriate interventions. It has been claimed that a particular sort of thought about the future plays a special role in supporting prudent decision making: what is termed episodic future thinking (EFT). EFT involves imagining in one's mind's eye specific events in one's own future, i.e., mentally "pre-experiencing" events before they happen. Indeed, studies with adults have suggested that encouraging people to think episodically about the future can help reduce discounting, with these findings beginning to form the basis of some novel interventions.

Young children have difficulty making prudent choices. The tendency to discount future rewards decreases gradually across childhood and also changes over adolescence, with 16-year-olds being more likely to make prudent choices than 14-year-olds. However, as yet, we do not fully understand the developmental changes that lie behind these important improvements in future-oriented decision making. EFT skills first emerge around 4 to 5 years, and, like future-oriented decision making, EFT continues to improve into adolescence. However, nothing is currently known about how the development of EFT and the development of decision making are linked. This project will examine this issue for the first time in a series of experiments that explore whether children's and adolescents' EFT abilities are linked to their tendency to discount future rewards. We will also test whether encouraging children and adolescents to think episodically about the future enhances their decision making, by contrasting the effects of EFT versus other sorts of thinking on discounting behavior. Finally, the project will examine a further untested hypothesis regarding developmental changes in future-oriented decision making: that younger children are more likely to discount future rewards because times in the future feel farther away to them than to older children. Existing research suggests that adults may differ in their tendency to discount future rewards in part because of differences in how far away the distant future feels to them. However, we do not know if this can explain age differences. We will thus examine whether any developmental differences in how far away the future feels are linked to EFT skills and, more specifically, the idea that difficulties younger children have in imagining events in their futures means that future rewards seem very distant in time.

This project will not only shed light on important developmental changes in decision making, it will also help psychologists understand the processes underlying prudent choice and the function of EFT. Such understanding is crucial for developing interventions to enhance future-oriented decision making in children, adolescents, and adults.

Planned Impact

The project's non-academic impact is likely to stem from two sources: (i) the insights it provides regarding the development of decision making skills and (ii) its contribution to our understanding of temporal discounting.

(i) It is widely assumed that children and adolescents are more short-sighted and less future-oriented in their decision making than adults. Indeed, the assumption that young people are less able to make decisions that are in their long-term interests than adults is enshrined in laws that specify age-related constraints regarding a large number of choices. However, there is considerable debate among both academics and policy makers over how evidence-based this assumption is. Moreover, a recurring issue is how to balance children's rights to participate in decisions that affect their own lives (also enshrined in law in the UK, due to ratification of the UNCRC) against the possibility that they may not always act in their own best interests because of a failure to consider or properly weight the future consequences of their actions. Psychologists have contributed to this debate by helping characterize and explain any limitations on young people's decision making abilities (e.g., Steinberg, 2012; Steinberg et al., 2009), but there is clearly more potential for psychology to help shape the debate. The claim that brain maturation leads to improved impulse control has been widely discussed in the mainstream media and popular parenting books (particularly on adolescence). However, psychological research on decision making over the last decade indicates that the developmental picture is more complex than this. The proposed research will help clarify this picture by testing a specific hypothesis: that there are age-related changes in future-oriented decision making because of changes in children's ability to think episodically about their futures (and as a result changes in how far away future times feel). Although we will test this hypothesis in controlled experiments rather than real-life scenarios, the findings will help pave the way for a better understanding of children's and adolescents' decision making that could ultimately inform policy-related debates.

(ii) One very striking feature of research on the tendency to discount future rewards is the consistency with which a relation has been demonstrated between performance on laboratory-based temporal discounting tasks and a large variety of real-world behaviors (e.g., addictions, gambling, weight control, taking exercise, risky sexual behavior, wearing a seatbelt). This suggests that such tasks tap into an important type of psychological characteristic that differs between individuals and groups. Understanding the cognitive basis of discounting is crucial for making sense of such differences and for developing real-life interventions that may help moderate the relevant behavior. This project will improve such understanding. Moreover, the aim of some of our studies is to carefully examine whether (and by what means) discounting can be reduced by encouraging episodic future thinking, building on some previous intervention studies that have suggested this is the case. A key strength of the project is that its findings will help demonstrate whether such interventions may be successful with adolescent populations, with adolescence being a crucial period with respect to the establishment of some of the types of behavior that have been associated with temporal discounting. However, we will also include child and adult samples, and the insights the project yields will be widely applicable.


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Description Data collection is still ongoing on this grant, but we already have some key findings. In our first large-scale study, we examined the relation between young children's (3- to 5-year-olds') ability to delay gratification and their ability to think about and imagine the future. We found clear improvements with age in children's ability to delay gratification, in this case to decide to get a larger reward tomorrow rather than a smaller reward today. In a series of other tasks, we also found that the ability to imagine the future improved across this age range. However, once we statistically controlled for IQ, we found that there was no relation between children's tendency to delay gratification and their ability to imagine the future (although ability to delay gratification was significantly related to IQ). These findings suggest that the ability to delay gratification in young children may require additional skills over and above the ability to imagine the future. We have just completed a second large-scale study examining the same issue in older children aged 7-10 years, and we are currently analysing these data.
Exploitation Route The ability to delay gratification is known to be an important predictor of developmental outcomes, including educational achievement. The findings from the whole project (yet to complete) will be informative in helping shape interventions that might improve children's abilities to delay gratification.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice