Is It Time? Episodic Imagining and the Discounting of Delayed and Probabilistic Rewards in Young and Older Adults

Cognition. 2020 Jun;199:104222. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104222. Epub 2020 Feb 21.

Abstract

Remembering and imagining specific, personal experiences can help shape our decisions. For example, cues to imagine future events can reduce delay discounting (i.e., increase the subjective value of future rewards). It is not known, however, whether such cues can also modulate other forms of reward discounting, such as probability discounting (i.e., the decrease in the subjective value of a possible reward as the odds against its occurrence increase). In addition, it is unclear whether there are age-related differences in the effects of cueing on either delay or probability discounting. Accordingly, young and older adult participants were administered delay and probability discounting tasks both with and without cues to imagine specific, personally meaningful events. As expected, cued episodic imagining decreased the discounting of delayed rewards. Notably, however, this effect was significantly less pronounced in older adults. In contrast to the effects of cueing on delay discounting, personally relevant event cues had little or no effect on the discounting of probabilistic rewards in either young or older adults; Bayesian analysis revealed compelling support for the null hypothesis that event cues do not modulate the subjective value of probabilistic rewards. In sum, imagining future events appears only to affect decisions involving delayed rewards. Although the cueing effect is smaller in older adults, nevertheless, it likely contributes to how adults of all ages evaluate delayed rewards and thus, it is, in fact, about time.

Keywords: Aging; Delay discounting; Episodic cueing; Future imagining; Intertemporal choice; Probability discounting.