Time Preference: the most under-appreciated mental trait

Time Preference isn’t sexy and exciting, like anything related to, well, sex. It isn’t controversial like IQ and gender. In fact, most of the ink spilled on the subject isn’t even found in evolutionary or evolutionary psychology texts, but over in economics papers about things like interest rates that no one but economists would want to read.

So why do I think Time Preference is so important?

Because I think Low Time Preference is the true root of high intelligence.

First, what is Time Preference?

Time Preference (aka future time orientation, time discounting, delay discounting, temporal discounting,) is the degree to which you value having a particular item today versus having it tomorrow. “High time preference” means you want things right now, whereas “low time preference” means you’re willing to wait.

A relatively famous test of Time Preference is to offer a child a cookie right now, but tell them they can have two cookies if they wait 10 minutes. Some children take the cookie right now, some wait ten minutes, and some try to wait ten minutes but succumb to the cookie right now about halfway through.

Obviously, many factors can influence your Time Preference–if you haven’t eaten in several days, for example, you’ll probably not only eat the cookie right away, but also start punching me until I give you the second cookie. If you don’t like cookies, you won’t have any trouble waiting for another, but you won’t have much to do with it. Etc. But all these things held equal, your basic inclination toward high or low time preference is probably biological–and by “biological,” I mean, “mostly genetic.”

Luckily for us, scientists have actually discovered where to break your brain to destroy your Time Preference, which means we can figure out how it works.

The scientists train rats to touch pictures with their noses in return for sugar cubes. Picture A gives them one cube right away, while picture B gives them more cubes after a delay. If the delay is too long or the reward too small, the rats just take the one cube right away. But there’s a sweet spot–apparently 4 cubes after a short wait—where the rats will figure it’s worth their while to tap picture B instead of picture A.

But if you snip the connection between the rats’ hippocampi and nucleus accumbenses, suddenly they lose all ability to wait for sugar cubes and just eat their sugar cubes right now, like a pack of golden retrievers in a room full of squeaky toys. They become completely unable to wait for the better payout of four sugar cubes, no matter how much they might want to.

So we know that this connection between the hippocampus and the nucleus accumbens is vitally important to your Time Orientation, though I don’t know what other modifications, such as low hippocampal volume or low nucleus accumbens would do.

So what do the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens do?

According to the Wikipedia, the hippocampus plays an important part in inhibition, memory, and spatial orientation. People with damaged hippocampi become amnesiacs, unable to form new memories.There is a pretty direct relationship between hippocampus size and memory, as documented primarily in old people:

“There is, however, a reliable relationship between the size of the hippocampus and memory performance β€” meaning that not all elderly people show hippocampal shrinkage, but those who do tend to perform less well on some memory tasks.[71] There are also reports that memory tasks tend to produce less hippocampal activation in elderly than in young subjects.[71] Furthermore, a randomized-control study published in 2011 found that aerobic exercise could increase the size of the hippocampus in adults aged 55 to 80 and also improve spatial memory.” (wikipedia)

Amnesiacs (and Alzheimer’s patients) also get lost a lot, which seems like a perfectly natural side effect of not being able to remember where you are, except that rat experiments show something even more interesting: specific cells that light up as the rats move around, encoding data about where they are.

“Neural activity sampled from 30 to 40 randomly chosen place cells carries enough information to allow a rat’s location to be reconstructed with high confidence.” (wikipedia)

"Spatial firing patterns of 8 place cells recorded from the CA1 layer of a rat. The rat ran back and forth along an elevated track, stopping at each end to eat a small food reward. Dots indicate positions where action potentials were recorded, with color indicating which neuron emitted that action potential." (from Wikipedia)
“Spatial firing patterns of 8 place cells recorded from the CA1 layer of a rat. The rat ran back and forth along an elevated track, stopping at each end to eat a small food reward. Dots indicate positions where action potentials were recorded, with color indicating which neuron emitted that action potential.” (from Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia, the Inhibition function theory is a little older, but seems like a perfectly reasonable theory to me.

“[Inhibition function theory] derived much of its justification from two observations: first, that animals with hippocampal damage tend to be hyperactive; second, that animals with hippocampal damage often have difficulty learning to inhibit responses that they have previously been taught, especially if the response requires remaining quiet as in a passive avoidance test.”

This is, of course, exactly what the scientists found when they separated the rats’ hippocampi from their nucleus accumbenses–they lost all ability to inhibit their impulses in order to delay gratification, even for a better payout.

In other word, the hippocampus lets you learn, process the moment of objects through space (spatial reasoning) and helps you suppress your inhibitions–that is, it is directly involved in IQ and Time Preference.

 

So what is the Nucleus Accumbens?

According to Wikipedia:

“As a whole, the nucleus accumbens has a significant role in the cognitive processing of aversion, motivation, pleasure, reward and reinforcement learning;[5][6][7] hence, it has a significant role in addiction.[6][7] It plays a lesser role in processing fear (a form of aversion), impulsivity, and the placebo effect.[8][9][10] It is involved in the encoding of new motor programs as well.[6]

Dopaminergic input from the VTA modulate the activity of neurons within the nucleus accumbens. These neurons are activated directly or indirectly by euphoriant drugs (e.g., amphetamine, opiates, etc.) and by participating in rewarding experiences (e.g., sex, music, exercise, etc.).[11][12] …

The shell of the nucleus accumbens is involved in the cognitive processing of motivational salience (wanting) as well as reward perception and positive reinforcement effects.[6] Particularly important are the effects of drug and naturally rewarding stimuli on the NAc shell because these effects are related to addiction.[6] Addictive drugs have a larger effect on dopamine release in the shell than in the core.[6] The specific subset of ventral tegmental area projection neurons that synapse onto the D1-type medium spiny neurons in the shell are responsible for the immediate perception of the rewarding property of a stimulus (e.g., drug reward).[3][4] …

The nucleus accumbens core is involved in the cognitive processing of motor function related to reward and reinforcement.[6] Specifically, the core encodes new motor programs which facilitate the acquisition of a given reward in the future.[6]

So it sounds to me like the point of the nucleus accumbens is to learn “That was awesome! Let’s do it again!” or “That was bad! Let’s not do it again!”

Together, the nucleus accumbens + hippocampus can learn “4 sugar cubes in a few seconds is way better than 1 sugar cube right now.” Apart, the nucleus accumbens just says, “Sugar cubes! Sugar cubes! Sugar cubes!” and jams the lever that says “Sugar cube right now!” and there is nothing the hippocampus can do about it.

 

What distinguishes humans from all other animals? Our big brains, intellects, or impressive vocabularies?

It is our ability to acquire new knowledge and use it to plan and build complex, multi-generational societies.

Ants and bees live in complex societies, but they do not plan them. Monkeys, dolphins, squirrels, and even rats can plan for the future, but only humans plan and build cities.

Even the hunter-gatherer must plan for the future; a small tendril only a few inches high is noted during the wet season, then returned to in the dry, when it is little more than a withered stem, and the water-storing root beneath it harvested. The farmer facing winter stores up grain and wood; the city engineer plans a water and sewer system large enough to handle the next hundred years’ projected growth.

All of these activities require the interaction between the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens tells us that water is good, grain is tasty, fire is warm, and that clean drinking water and flushable toilets are awesome. The hippocampus reminds us that the dry season is coming, and so we should save–and remember–that root until we need it. It reminds us that we will be cold and hungry in winter if we don’t save our grain and spend a hours and hours chopping wood right now. It reminds us that not only is it good to organize the city so that everyone can have clean drinking water and flushable toilets right now, but that we should also make sure the system will keep working even as new people enter the city over time.

Disconnect these two, and your ability to plan goes down the drain. You eat all of your roots now, devour your seed corn, refuse to chop wood, and say, well, yes, running water would be nice, but that would require so much planning.

 

As I have mentioned before, I think Europeans (and probably a few other groups whose history I’m just not as familiar with and so I cannot comment on) IQ increased quite a bit in the past thousand years or so, and not just because the Catholic Church banned cousin marriage. During this time, manorialism became a big deal throughout Western Europe, and the people who exhibited good impulse control, worked hard, delayed gratification, and were able to accurately calculate the long-term effects of their actions tended to succeed (that is, have lots of children) and pass on their clever traits to their children. I suspect that selective pressure for “be a good manorial employee” was particularly strong in German, (and possibly Japan, now that I think about it,) resulting in the Germanic rigidity that makes them such good engineers.

Nothing in the manorial environment directly selected for engineering ability, higher math, large vocabularies, or really anything that we mean when we normally talk about IQ. But I do expect manorial life to select for those who could control their impulses and plan for the future, resulting in a run-away effect of increasingly clever people constructing increasingly complex societies in which people had to be increasingly good at dealing with complexity and planning to survive.

Ultimately, I see pure mathematical ability as a side effect of being able to accurately predict the effects of one’s actions and plan for the future (eg, “It will be an extra long winter, so I will need extra bushels of corn,”) and the ability to plan for the future as a side effect of being able to accurately represent the path of objects through space and remember lessons one has learned. All of these things, ultimately, are the same operations, just oriented differently through the space-time continuum.

Since your brain is, of course, built from the same DNA code as the rest of you, we would expect brain functions to have some amount of genetic heritablity, which is exactly what we find:

Source: The Heritability of Impulse Control
Source: The Heritability of Impulse Control, Genetic and environmental influences on impulsivity: a meta-analysis of twin, family and adoption studies

“A meta-analysis of twin, family and adoption studies was conducted to estimate the magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on impulsivity. The best fitting model for 41 key studies (58 independent samples from 14 month old infants to adults; N=27,147) included equal proportions of variance due to genetic (0.50) and non-shared environmental (0.50) influences, with genetic effects being both additive (0.38) and non-additive (0.12). Shared environmental effects were unimportant in explaining individual differences in impulsivity. Age, sex, and study design (twin vs. adoption) were all significant moderators of the magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on impulsivity. The relative contribution of genetic effects (broad sense heritability) and unique environmental effects were also found to be important throughout development from childhood to adulthood. Total genetic effects were found to be important for all ages, but appeared to be strongest in children. Analyses also demonstrated that genetic effects appeared to be stronger in males than in females.”

 

“Shared environmental effects” in a study like this means “the environment you and your siblings grew up in, like your household and school.” In this case, shared effects were unimportant–that means that parenting had no effect on the impulsivity of adopted children raised together in the same household. Non-shared environmental influences are basically random–you bumped your head as a kid, your mom drank during pregnancy, you were really hungry or pissed off during the test, etc., and maybe even cultural norms.

So your ability to plan for the future appears to be part genetic, and part random luck.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Time Preference: the most under-appreciated mental trait

    • I didnt read the full article… however what was read seems flawed. Time preference is adjustable. The question is a subjective and rational one, though the outcome may not fit the “rational” model. A way to think about it may be gain/time. In other words does the wait, in terms of my need or the items utility (to be defined in terms of its subjective usage), justify the wait. To wait a year to gain an additional 1$ is ludicrous when I can use the single dollar now. The wait does not justify the gain.

      Like

  1. Very interesting, particularly your speculation regarding mathematical ability being a side effect of time preference.

    Like

  2. […] 3rd world in the 1st world, The Great Informationing, Who Owns a Country? Religious Communism, EvolutionistX Manifesto, Things Have Changed Incredibly Fast, and We have Forgotten, Culture Comes from People, A Structural Proposal, Of Course your Enemies are Organized, Immigration, Corporations are Meta-Organisms and so Should not be Allowed in Politics, Why do economists fail at basic math? The Police, Let’s Talk Math, The Candy Crush Career Track, In Defense of Planned Parenthood, Family, Nation, and History, Land Value Tax and Coherent Ownership for Civilization, Les Miserables, Time Preference: the most under-appreciated mental trait […]

    Like

  3. Very interesting article, thanks. I wanted to wait til later to read it but just couldn’t. There is also one element that would be interesting to add to the “cookie” or “sugar cube” tests: does the trust level the subject has in the dispenser play any part? For example sometimes the child doesn’t get two cookies or the rat doesn’t get four sugar cubes even though they waited. I think that would have important implications for current society where the old “tried and true” low time preference strategies might not work as well as they used to.

    Like

  4. Interesting post. Regarding ‘break your brain to destroy your Time Preference’: the next paragraph, on the contrary, seems to describe an operation which causes Time Preference to go way up – i.e. which destroys that which makes Time Preference low. So is there a mistake here in your exposition or am I misunderstanding?

    Like

  5. Piffle. The answer depends on the person’s beliefs not on all this academic evo-psych frippery. A future time preference depends entirely on the belief that the future is worth something. This is a no-brainer for religious people, who mostly seem to live in hope, but for others it’s far and away smarter to question whether what may be gleaned tomorrow is of more value than what is available right now. For the most part, the selfish non-religious person will build systems that exploit weaknesses for his own gain, the time before payoff depends pretty much on the means available to him.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s