Behavioral Research Course

Behavioral Research Lit Search 3a

My research centers on factors that impact temporal discounting. Temporal discounting is the tendency to prefer immediately rewarding outcomes to rewards that come at a later time. For example, people tend to prefer $20 today to $25 in 1 month, even though $25 is objectively larger. The time delay puts a “tax” on the monetary value.

I am particularly interested in factors that relate to individual differences in discounting (i.e., childhood adversity, personality, age, concussion history, etc…) and factors that can “nudge” discounting behavior to increase more future-oriented thinking.

For today, I’ll focus on just one of three articles for Lit search 3.

Acuff et al. (2017) argue that drinking culture is a major public health problem on college campuses. They cite stats from the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics & Quality (2015) to support this claim:

  • 60% of college students reported drinking in the last 30 days
  • 38% reported a binge drinking episode

These data are important because as the authors advance, alcohol consumption is linked to academic performance, including missed classes and deadlines/assignments. Alcohol consumption could lead to poorer academic performance because of missing class, fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and/or missed study hours. Acuff et al. (2017) set out to examine three factors that could mitigate the negative impact of heavy alcohol use on academic achievement. Specifically, they examined protective behavioral strategies, temporal discounting, and the consideration of future consequences.

As described by the authors, protective behavioral strategies include limiting consumption, eating a meal, or using a DD in order to limit negative consequences associated with alcohol consumption.  Acuff et al. (2017) suggest that engaging in these behaviors may reduce the negative impact of heavy alcohol use on academic achievement.

The authors also propose that temporal discounting is an important behavior related to academic success and drinking. For example, academic success often involves choosing a less immediately gratifying behavior (e.g., studying) to achieve later benefits (e.g., good grades). Several past studies have linked steeper temporal discounting to alcohol and substance abuse problems; interestingly, steeper temporal discounting is also related to lower GPA.

Lastly, the authors suggest that consideration of future consequences may be an important factor to reducing the negative impact of alcohol consumption on academic success. Consideration of future consequences is similar to discounting, but is more specifically defined as an individuals bias toward considering current versus later outcomes when making a choice.

Based on these concepts, Acuff et al. (2017) predict that protective behavioral strategies, temporal discounting, and consideration of future consequences will correlate with academic success after controlling for several factors, most importantly alcohol consumption. They argue that support for this hypothesis will motivate interventions to increase future orientation, especially among students who drink.

The authors found support for their hypothesis. Specifically college drinkers who engaged in protective behavioral strategies enjoyed greater academic success. Also, both discounting and consideration of future consequences predicted academic success. They suggest that future orientation can help individuals experience academic success despite heavy alcohol use. Moreover, when broken down into more specific behaviors, the authors found that discounting related to GPA (likely a more stable trait related to intelligence) and consideration of future consequences related to time spent on academic work.

Taken together, the authors suggest that protective behavioral strategies, discounting, and consideration of future consequences may play protective roles among students who engage in heavy drinking, allowing them to succeed academically. They suggest future research explore interventions geared toward capitalizing on this knowledge such as future oriented thinking and motivational interviewing.

This research provides evidence that discounting relates to academic success. It also motivates future research I plan to pursue, examining the impact of mental contrasting on discounting. Mental contrasting is a problem focused coping strategy the asks participants to think of a goal, positive outcomes associated with the goal, possible obstacles, and ways to combat those obstacles.

By contrast to some past research I’ve focused on related to discounting, this research connects discounting to several real world behaviors that are important to success, including academic success and alcohol use. This is important because I am interested in connecting discounting to attitudes toward student debt. Also, like much past research, the authors primarily rely on correlation/regression. I am interested in expanding my lab’s work to experimental methods and examining factors that influence behavior rather than just predicting behavior.

In addition, this research connects discounting to academic achievement and alcohol use on campus. My lab’s current research is focusing primarily on how past adversity connects to current decision patterns and attitudes toward debt. I think it is worth considering the added value of measuring academic achievement or alcohol use. These may be important variables for future research, if we find that mental contrasting is an effective strategy for reducing discounting and changing attitudes toward debt.

Acuff, S. F., Loltis, K. E., Dennhardt, A. A., Borsari, B., Martens, M. P., & Murphy, J. G. (2017). Future so bright? Delay discounting and consideration of future consequences predict academic performance among college drinkersExperimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 5,412-421. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pha0000143

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