Assessing evidence for a common function of delay in causal learning and reward discounting

Front Psychol. 2012 Nov 15;3:460. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00460. eCollection 2012.


Time occupies a central role in both the induction of causal relationships and determining the subjective value of rewards. Delays devalue rewards and also impair learning of relationships between events. The mathematical relation between the time until a delayed reward and its present value has been characterized as a hyperbola-like function, and increasing delays of reinforcement tend to elicit judgments or response rates that similarly show a negatively accelerated decay pattern. Furthermore, neurological research implicates both the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in both these processes. Since both processes are broadly concerned with the concepts of reward, value, and time, involve a similar functional form, and have been identified as involving the same specific brain regions, it seems tempting to assume that the two processes are underpinned by the same cognitive or neural mechanisms. We set out to determine experimentally whether a common cognitive mechanism underlies these processes, by contrasting individual performances on causal judgment and delay discounting tasks. Results from each task corresponded with previous findings in the literature, but no relation was found between the two tasks. The task was replicated and extended by including two further measures, the Barrett Impulsiveness Scale (BIS), and a causal attribution task. Performance on this latter task was correlated with results on the causal judgment task, and also with the non-planning component of the BIS, but the results from the delay discounting task was not correlated with either causal learning task nor the BIS. Implications for current theories of learning are considered.

Keywords: causal learning; delay discounting; reinforcement delay; subjective reward value; utility.