Hyperbolic discounting. What the…?

Instant gratification

Hyperbolic Discounting – What the…?

I love a supermarket coupon. You know the type….buy ‘this’ ítem and get 100 bonus points. ONE HUNDRED. I can never resist.

But I’m being taken advantage of. Businesses know about the psychological phenomenon called hyperbolic discounting. You may never have heard of this, but it’s very relevant to how you make decisions about several things, including what to eat.

Hyperbolic discounting relates to the tendency to want something NOW, the joy of instant gratification. Without really thinking through if this is the best option.

So back to the coupon for a moment. The item in question was £2.99. The actual ‘value’ of 100 points was 50p. If the coupon had said “If you give me £2.99 for something you don’t need and never intended to buy, I’ll give you 50p” then the rational part of my brain would hopefully have realised that this was not a great deal for me. But the coupon didn’t say that. It said 100 BONUS POINTS. And I had to have them. Now. Instant gratification. While the rational part of my brain had a snooze.

Apart from the coupons, hyperbolic discounting is at work in many other areas of our lives:

  • Credit cards…buy now, pay later.
  • Pensions…..holiday this year, save next year.
  • Sales…only one day left. Last chance to buy!

Put simply, we prefer immediate reward, or instant gratification, over future benefit. How far into the future you may see the benefit will also have a huge effect on our decision making. For example, if offered £50 today or £100 tomorrow, most people are likely to wait one day for £100. However if offered £50 today or £100 in 2 years’ time, you are more likely to take £50 today. In this case, two years is simply too long to wait, even though the reward is greater.

So what’s it got to do with how I eat?

Health and eating behaviours are subject to the same psychology. We all succumb to instant gratification at least occasionally.

  • Just one more drink…I’ll be fine tomorrow morning
  • Early to bed…..but I really want to see the end of that film
  • Exercise…I should go for a walk, but the sofa is so comfy
  • Another biscuit…I’ll be super strict tomorrow.

Pleasure and comfort now, worry about the consequences later.

On the other hand, you may have decided to forgo immediate food pleasure for the future benefit of weight loss. With that in mind, which of these options would you be most likely to go for:

  • “Lose 10lbs in 7 days” (a headline guaranteed to sell thousands of magazines) or,
  • “Lose 1 stone in 6 months”

You are more likely to be drawn to 7lbs weight loss in 10 days. Six months is just not soon enough for our immediate world. What happens after the 10 days is another story. The rational part of your brain knows this claim to be a short-lived fix, but the lure of rapid weight loss is strong.

So if your psychology is going to try to work against you, what can you do about it?

Scenario 1: I must eat it NOW!!!

Imagine the thought: “There’s chocolate in the fridge. I’m supposed to be on a diet, but I WANT THAT CHOCOLATE. NOW.”

You are at risk of choosing immediate food pleasure over longer term benefit. But it’s not a done deal. You have options.

You could go right ahead and eat, letting hyperbolic discounting guide your decision, or you could hold hyperbolic discounting at arm’s length until you try to understand why the chocolate has a grip on you. Pause for thought and consider the following:

Why do you want it now?

If you genuinely know you want it and will savour every second of it, that you will eat only to the point of satisfaction and then stop, without any overeating and with pure enjoyment and no guilt, then that is appropriate eating.

It’s completely fine to decide you want the instant gratification of food. But if you always eat on these occasions, that may be a sign of unconscious, habit driven behaviours or deep rooted dieting mentalities.

For example, if you ‘want’ it mainly because you think you are not ‘allowed’ it on your current diet, or for reasons such as boredom, then you have identified a food problem that needs to be resolved.

Is there a ‘bigger picture’?

It may be helpful to consider the ‘bigger picture’. When you eat something you don’t really want for momentary pleasure, it has a ripple effect – when the enjoyment has passed, there may be an on-going effect on, for example:

  • your confidence in your ability to control yourself around food
  • how you feel physically after eating, such as bloating or nausea
  • restricted eating the following day to ‘make up for’ previous eating
  • ongoing inappropriate eating caused by guilt.

If you can open your eyes to the bigger picture, it becomes possible to see the victories in deciding not to eat spontaneously all the time.

Scenario 2: I must lose 5lbs by next week!!

Some people may use the tactic of ‘I’ll not eat that because I want to have lost xlbs this week” – tread carefully if you relate to this. Food decisions based only on weight have a nasty habit of driving yo-yo diet patterns. Going on an unrealistic, unsustainable restrictive diet to achieve a weight target is a hollow and short-lived victory. Weight loss is not a goal. Improved food behaviours is a goal. So don’t focus on weight loss (see blog post Scales – friend or foe?)

If you have a history of making food decisions mainly based on whether you are trying to lose weight or not, you probably overlook the value of the intangible stuff. Confidence in yourself, trust in your food decisions, reducing the power food has over you, feeling in control of your food decisions, the ability to take it or leave it…..these things are extremely important. Make these your immediate gratifications (at least occasionally).


Your psychology may predispose you to unhelpful behaviours, and make you feel that you are either powerless against food and must eat now, or have no choice but to go on a diet that promises maximum weight loss in minimum time. This is a destructive cycle and there is little benefit in it for you.

So back to the coupons….I fell for the coupon trick every time. Now I know what’s going on, I am going to be stronger against those coupons. I’m going to engage the rational part of my brain and not be tricked into purchasing something I don’t want or need…..at least until I get my next coupon.

If you wish to further explore the information in the Diet Dilemmas blog, see Diet Dilemmas book