Repository logo

The delay-reward heuristic: What do people expect in intertemporal choice tasks?

Published version

Thumbnail Image



Change log


Skylark, William J 
Chan, Kieran TF 
Farmer, George D 
Gaskin, Kai W 
Miller, Amelia R 


Recent research has shown that risk and reward are positively correlated in many environments, and that people have internalized this association as a "risk-reward heuristic": when making choices based on incomplete information, people infer probabilities from payoffs and vice-versa, and these inferences shape their decisions. We extend this work by examining people's expectations about another fundamental trade-off-that between monetary reward and delay. In 2 experiments (total N = 670), we adapted a paradigm previously used to demonstrate the risk-reward heuristic. We presented participants with intertemporal choice tasks in which either the delayed reward or the length of the delay was obscured. Participants inferred larger rewards for longer stated delays, and longer delays for larger stated rewards; these inferences also predicted people's willingness to take the delayed option. In exploratory analyses, we found that older participants inferred longer delays and smaller rewards than did younger ones. All of these results replicated in 2 large-scale pre-registered studies with participants from a different population (total N = 2138). Our results suggest that people expect intertemporal choice tasks to offer a trade-off between delay and reward, and differ in their expectations about this trade-off. This "delay-reward heuristic" offers a new perspective on existing models of intertemporal choice and provides new insights into unexplained and systematic individual differences in the willingness to delay gratification.



decision-making, delay discounting, delay-reward heuristic, intertemporal choice, risk-reward heuristic

Journal Title

Judgm Decis Mak

Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title



Cambridge University Press (CUP)