The impulse to prefer now to then?

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There’s a new paper which uses fMRI to localize an area of the brain which seems to be involved in preventing impulsive actions. I can’t but help think that something like this, which might vary from person to person, could be one of the upstream factors which shapes individual time preference. This is on my mind because I just finished Farewell to Alms by Greg Clark, and change in mean time preference is at the root of a shift in behavior which he believes primed the English (among others) for their breakout from the Malthusian trap. But it is one thing to posit a behavior whose distribution is governed by selective forces of a quantitative genetic nature, the case for any such arguments gains a boost if one could tunnel down to the level of biophysical specificity so as to assess variation across individuals and populations.

In other news, watch this space. Our own Herrick has a “10 questions” with Clark pending, so keep an eye out (that means you Ambrosini Critique).



  1. Yes, this will be extremely interesting. As time preference is one of the backbones of economic development, showing (with video) that populations differ in the hardwiring for this particular department should cause more than the usual amount of very peculiar and tortured exegenis to explain away…

  2. …sis…

  3. …and of course that is if the studies do show a biophysical difference between populations.

  4. there are biophysical differences. don’t know if it matters.

  5. I meant the possible fMRI studies of the section of the brain that specifically controls for impulse and time preference. 
    Economists would then have to take notice. But they would probably find a way not to.

  6. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Gross anatomical differences don’t tell us much about actual neural function in most instances. Looking at specific regions is likely to be less useful than examining activation patterns overall. 
    Trying to establish a relationship between demonstrated time preference levels and replicable activation differences would be far more useful.

  7. fwiw, Impulsivity is a facet of the personality trait Neuroticism, not Conscientiousness. kinda weird.

  8. Actually, in reading the literature, impulsivity is usually considered to be part of conscientiousness. Confusion arises because Costa and McCrae’s NEO has an impulsivity facet under neuroticism. However recent reviews have linked aspects of impulsivity to extraversion and mainly conscientiousness. The consensus is that the link between neuroticism and impulsivity is a result of neurotism causing impulsive actions, not that impulsivity is a part of neuroticism.