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

Abstract

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.
 
Description This project examined the relation between being able to imagine one's personal future (termed episodic future thinking) and prudent decision making, studying development from the preschool years into adolescence. We examined this relation in two ways: (i) by studying whether the two abilities seemed to be related to each other and (ii) by examining whether we could facilitate prudent decision making by getting children or adolescents to imagine the future. Across a series of studies, we found that there was developmental change in the relation between imagining the future and prudent decision making.

In pre-schoolers, 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. Moreover, we found that, surprisingly, getting young children to imagine tomorrow made it less rather than more likely that they would delay gratification. 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, and that imagining the future is itself very effortful in this age group.

Further studies examined the same issue in older children aged 7-10 years, and again we found that the ability to imagine the future was unrelated to children's tendency to delay gratification. With this age group, we looked at children's choices about whether to delay gratification over time-periods extending from one day to several weeks. Children's responses in the delay of gratification task were closely related to their judgments about how far away in the future points in time felt to them, which is a novel finding. Indeed, we found that relative to adults children were likely to perceive relatively short time delays as similar in length to relatively long time delays. These findings suggest that children's perception of the future affects whether they are prepared to wait for a reward. We also found that getting children of this age to imagine the future did not enhance their tendency to delay gratification, although unlike in younger children, it did not worsen performance.

Finally, we examined whether, like adults, we could enhance the likelihood that adolescents delayed gratification by getting them to imagine the future, even though we had found that this did not assist younger children. We found that imagining the future did indeed increase the likelihood that adolescents would be prepared to wait for a reward, but that this was only the case when they imagined their personal futures, not that of another person, which is also a novel finding.

Taken together, our findings suggest that imagining the future helps prudent decision making only relatively late in development, most likely because it is a relatively effortful activity for younger children. Interventions with children aiming to enhance delay of gratification abilities may need to focus on other ways to affect how close future time points feel.
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 will be informative in helping shape interventions that might improve children's abilities to delay gratification. They suggest that interventions with children may need to be sensitive to the fact that before adolescents children find it particularly difficult to richly imagine their personal futures.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description Many of the findings of this project are still under review for publication, so potential impact has been to date largely as a result of public engagement activities that have served to disseminate the findings. These include presentations at the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, an article for Impact magazine, and a public engagement event at regional science museum (W5) that involved demonstrating one of our delay of gratification tasks.
First Year Of Impact 2019
 
Description ESRC Social Sciences Festival event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Event entitled "Thinking in Time: The Developmental Psychology of Future Thinking". This was held as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences and involved members of the public visiting the laboratory, participating in a live experiment, and hearing a presentation about the outcomes of two ESRC-funded projects on the development of future thinking. This event was positively evaluated by those present through evaluation questionnaires.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Event for parents and children at W5 Science Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This event was carried out at W5 Science Museum and involved children and their parents over a full day at the museum. Parents and children were able to see versions of the some of the tasks used in the research project on future thinking in children and children could participate in a version of the decision making task that we have used. Engagement was excellent from parents and children, particularly with regard to the difficulties faced in delaying gratification, and strategies to help this.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Northern Ireland Science Festival Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This event was a workshop held as part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival. The general public were invited to attend an event about the development of future thinking. They visited the laboratory in the School of Psychology and participated in a live experiment. They then heard two short presentations about the research we were conducting in this area and its findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Participated in a panel for BBC Radio 4 programme "All in the Mind" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in a live panel discussion for the Radio 4 programme All in the Mind. Please note this programme is also broadcast on the World Service under a different title, with a potentially large international audience. During the recording, I talked about my work on time and future thinking in children. Audience questions were also taken. This programme will be broadcast in Spring 2020 nationally and internationally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Participation in British Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in an interdisciplinary event on the theme of Time at the British Science Festival in which I described, amongst other things, some of the key findings of this project to a general audience made up of members of the public. There were approximately 200 people present. As a result of this, I was subsequently invited to participate in two further activities, the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences in the Midlands area, and an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme All in the Mind, subsequently recorded in 2020. Audience feedback from this event was also very good.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Participation in a public engagement event as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences in the Midlands area 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk on my research on time and development as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences in the Midlands area. This talk was delivered in Coventry in a public venue. There was good audience participation at the event, although the audience was small.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Public engagement talk at the Northern Ireland Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I delivered a talk at the Northern Ireland Science Festival on the Puzzle of Time. This was an interdisciplinary event at which I described some of my research on time in children. The talk was sold out with an audience of over 100 people. Audience engagement was excellent.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020