Samuel McClure on Decision Making

By Rinna Sanchez-Baluyut, Teacher

Every day we are faced with countless decisions in life. We make choices that affect our long-term and short-term goals. These decisions are sometimes driven by our impulsivity or after much thought and consideration. At Bing’s spring staff development day, Samuel McClure, PhD, an assistant professor at Stanford University in the Department of Psychology, shared his research study on neural mechanisms of time discounting, which gave insight into decision-making.

McClure has been interested in understanding neural behavior and how decisions come about. He explained his studies, which involved a standard experimental choice called intertemporal choice. According to McClure, an intertemporal choice offers alternatives that are available at different points in time. Would it be more beneficial to get something now or get something later? An example would be, “Would you rather have $10 today or $11 tomorrow?” Or, “Would you rather have $10 in a year or $11 in a year and a day?” According to McClure, the results revealed that people tend to be more patient if the choice is way off in the future and become more impulsive when the choice is closer to the present. Therefore, people tend to choose getting the $10 today instead of the $11 tomorrow since it is closer to the present. However, when given the choice of receiving the $10 in a year or the $11 in a year and a day, people tend to be more patient and choose the $11 in a year and a day since the choice is significantly ahead in the future.

McClure’s brain imaging study revealed that thinking of rewards activated different brain networks. The study revealed that when subjects chose the immediate reward, the parts of the brain that were activated were influenced heavily by brain systems linked with emotion. On the other hand, when subjects made decisions for future rewards brain systems linked to emotional regulation were activated.

Futhermore, McClure indicated that several variables influence patience. One such variable, called the magnitude effect, occurs because people grow increasingly patient when larger quantities of units of money are at stake. For instance, the equivalent of $10 is 40 quarters or 200 nickels. The larger the quantity, say, 200 nickels, the less impulsive people are in decision-making. In McClure’s study, results revealed that the larger the amount, the larger the perceived risks, and the more willing people are to control cognitive functions that determine their behavior. The significance of this study is the realization that if a person can change the way he perceives the stakes, maybe he can also change how patient he can be. McClure is conducting a similar study at Bing to see if delayed gratification has the same effect on children using the magnitude effect.