Many decisions involve a trade-off between the quality of an outcome and the time at which that outcome is received. In psychology and behavioral economics, the most widely studied models hypothesize that the values of future gains decline as a roughly hyperbolic function of delay from the present. Recently, it has been proposed that this hyperbolic-like decline in value arises from the interaction of two separate neural systems: one specialized to value immediate rewards and the other specialized to value delayed rewards. Here we report behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging results that are inconsistent with both the standard behavioral models of discounting and the hypothesis that separate neural systems value immediate and delayed rewards. Behaviorally, we find that human subjects do not necessarily make the impulsive preference reversals predicted by hyperbolic-like discounting. We also find that blood oxygenation level dependent activity in ventral striatum, medial prefrontal, and posterior cingulate cortex does not track whether an immediate reward was present, as proposed by the separate neural systems hypothesis. Activity in these regions was correlated with the subjective value of both immediate and delayed rewards. Rather than encoding only the relative value of one reward compared with another, these values are represented on a more absolute scale. These data support an alternative behavioral-neural model (which we call "ASAP"), in which subjective value declines hyperbolically relative to the soonest currently available reward and a small number of valuation areas serve as a final common pathway through which these subjective values guide choice.
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