Time ambiguity during intertemporal decision-making is aversive, impacting choice and neural value coding

Neuroimage. 2019 Jan 15;185:236-244. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.10.008. Epub 2018 Oct 5.


We are often presented with choices that differ in their more immediate versus future consequences. Interestingly, in everyday-life, ambiguity about the exact timing of such consequences frequently occurs, yet it remains unknown whether and how time-ambiguity influences decisions and their underlying neural correlates. We developed a novel intertemporal fMRI choice task in which participants make choices between sooner-smaller (SS) versus later-larger (LL) monetary rewards with systematically varying levels of time-ambiguity. Across trials, delay information of the SS, the LL, or both rewards was either exact (e.g., in 5 weeks), of low ambiguity (4 week range: e.g., in 3-7 weeks), or of high ambiguity (8 week range: e.g., in 1-9 weeks). Choice behavior showed that the majority of participants preferred options with exact delays over those with ambiguous delays, indicating time-ambiguity aversion. Consistent with these results, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex showed decreased activation during ambiguous versus exact trials. In contrast, intraparietal sulcus activation increased during ambiguous versus exact trials. Furthermore, exploratory analyses suggest that more time-ambiguity averse participants show more insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation during subjective value (SV)-coding of ambiguous versus exact trials. Lastly, the best-fitting computational choice models indicate that ambiguity impacts the SV of options via time perception or via an additive ambiguity-related penalty term. Together, these results provide the first behavioral and neural signatures of time-ambiguity, pointing towards a unique profile that is distinct from impatience. Since time-ambiguity is ubiquitous in real-life, it likely contributes to shortsighted decisions above and beyond delay-discounting.

Keywords: Ambiguity; Decision-making; Intertemporal choice; Modeling; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Delay Discounting / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Time Perception / physiology*