Delay Discounting and Alcohol Abusers: More Impatient Even When Not Impulsive?

29 Pages Posted: 30 Dec 2013

Date Written: December 28, 2013


Many studies have found: (i) substance abusers discount delayed rewards more than non-abusers do, which is widely interpreted as implying that substance abusers are more impulsive than non-abusers; and (ii) discounting increases most sharply with time when delays are brief, and then increases more slowly as delays grow longer, in a pattern called “hyperbolic” that is at odds with exponential discounting. In a sample of 157 college students we implement a new delay discounting task introduced by Andreoni and Sprenger (2012a,b) that faces participants with rather complex choices about sooner and later rewards. We also follow Andreoni and Sprenger in giving participants explicit assurances that chosen future rewards will, in fact, be delivered, which past studies have not. Echoing Andreoni and Sprenger, but contrary to (ii), we find that most participants’ discounting is exponential in this new task. We nonetheless confirm (i). We discuss several possible explanations for our participants discounting exponentially. That both participants with problems and those without tend to discount exponentially in our task indicates neither group is behaving impulsively in our experimental setting. Finding, as we do, marked differences in exponential discounting between those with alcohol problems and those without suggests that better understanding the psychological roots and malleability of exponential discounting (that is, of impatience in the absence of impulsivity) might lead to new therapies for reducing substance abuse.

Keywords: addiction, present bias, substance abuse, discounting

JEL Classification: C91, D12, D81

Suggested Citation

Lemenze, Courtney and Murray, Michael P., Delay Discounting and Alcohol Abusers: More Impatient Even When Not Impulsive? (December 28, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Courtney Lemenze

Bates College ( email )

Lewiston, ME 04240
United States

Michael P. Murray (Contact Author)

Bates College ( email )

Lewiston, ME 04240
United States
207-786-6085 (Phone)

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