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Short-Term Gains Get in the Way of Good Decisions

Holding out for long-term benefits is difficult, study finds

FRIDAY, April 2 (HealthDay News) -- Even when they have complete information, people tend to make poor choices by selecting short-term satisfaction over long-term benefits, according to new research.

The study included 78 volunteers who used a computer program that repeatedly gave them two options that allowed them to accumulate points. One option offered more points immediately, but the other option could lead to more points later on in the experiment. The participants were given a financial incentive to get as many points as possible.

People who were offered full and accurate information about what they would have to give up in the short term in order to accumulate more points in the long term chose the quick payoff twice as often as those who received false information or no information, the researchers found.

The study was published online in March in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.

"You'd think that with more information about your options, a person would make a better decision. Our study suggests the opposite," Bradley Love, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a news release. "To fully appreciate a long-term option, you have to choose it repeatedly and begin to feel the benefits."

The long-term benefits of decisions can be reinforced by tangible rewards, such as a good school grade, a raise or a promotion. These benefits can act as signposts of long-term success and help people overcome the strong desire for short-term gain, Love explained.

"If there were no conflict in our choices, this wouldn't be a problem. But everything has that conflict between short-term and long-term goals. It's really hard for a learning system to disentangle what's good for you in the short term or long term," he said.

More information

To learn about teens and decision-making, visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of Texas at Austin, news release, March 31, 2010

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