Does time perception underlie delay discounting?



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Delay discounting, the belief that rewards decline in value over time, is a phenomenon observed in several clinical disorders, including Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), substance abuse disorders, and other impulse control disorders. Delay discounting behavior is characterized by a tendency to choose smaller, more immediate rewards over larger, more delayed rewards. This tendency has been associated with behavioral impulsivity and inability to delay gratification observed in the aforementioned clinical disorders. It has been suggested that time perception may be a salient feature of delay discounting. If the larger, longer-term reward is perceived as being more temporally remote, its relative value decreases and is associated with greater cost, and one becomes more likely to choose the more immediate reward over the longer-term (though optimal) choice. Time perception has been studied in clinical populations, with increased variability of responses as well as both under-production and overestimation of time intervals observed in those with ADHD and other disorders associated with impulsivity. The present study used informational feedback via a metronome to change belief regarding duration of a second--either increasing or decreasing it by approximately 20%. Participants were 132 college-aged students with and without a diagnosis of ADHD. Measures of impulsivity and ADHD symptomatology were collected as well, and participants completed several cognitive tasks measuring working memory and processing speed to explore the impacts of these measures on delay discounting and time perception. While participants were able to reliably incorporate the altered second belief into short estimations of time (i.e., less than a minute), the manipulation failed to generalize to longer-duration temporal estimations, and it did not affect delay discounting. Neither ADHD symptomatology, impulsivity, nor performance on the cognitive tasks were related to delay discounting behaviors, though a working memory measure was correlated with baseline (pre-manipulation) time and one longer duration estimation. This lends support to a relationship between working memory and temporal perception, though the relationship between temporal perception and delay discounting remains elusive. Directions for future studies to clarify the role of temporal processing and ADHD in delay discounting are discussed.