Prior research has shown that nonhumans show an extreme preference for variable- over fixed-delays to reinforcement. This well-established preference for variability occurs because a reinforcer’s strength or “value” decreases according to a curvilinear function as its delay increases. The purpose of the present experiments was to investigate whether this preference for variability occurs with human participants making hypothetical choices. In three experiments, participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk made choices between variable and fixed monetary rewards. In a variable-delay procedure, participants repeatedly chose between a reward delivered either immediately or after a delay (with equal probability) and a reward after a fixed delay (Experiments 1 and 2). In a double-reward procedure, participants made choices between an alternative consisting of two rewards, one delivered immediately and one after a delay, and a second alternative consisting of a single reward delivered after a delay (Experiments 1 and 3). Finally, all participants completed a standard delay-discounting task. Although we observed both curvilinear discounting and magnitude effects in the standard discounting task, we found no consistent evidence of a preference for variability—as predicted by two prominent models of curvilinear discounting (i.e., a simple hyperbola and a hyperboloid)—in our variable-delay and double-reward procedures. This failure to observe a preference for variability may be attributed to the hypothetical, rule-governed nature of choices in the present study. In such contexts, participants may adopt relatively simple strategies for making more complex choices.
McKerchar, Todd and Mazur, James E., "Human Choices Between Variable and Fixed Rewards in Hypothetical Variable-Delay and Double-Reward Discounting Procedures" (2016). Research, Publications & Creative Work. 101.