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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Unpredictability shortens planning horizons


Recent research has identified intertemporal impulsivity as a critical cognitive variable for explaining the autocatalytic nature of socioeconomic status. However, how exactly this relationship transpires has yet to be clearly identified, with several possible cognitive mechanisms proposed in the literature. We designed an experimental paradigm where participants farmed crops under budgetary constraints and intermittently faced random resource demands. We discovered that, as a result of unpredictable resource shocks, people's preferences shifted from long-term choices to short-term ones. We also found people's self-reported sense-of-control scores to be predictive of the magnitude of their preference shifts. On the basis of these results, we argue that steep inter-temporal discounting arises as a rational adaptation to persistently experiencing long-term planning failures due to unpredictable resource shocks.

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