The findings could help in the understanding of how people make decisions. Many choices involve a waiting period – playing the stock market, for example, often requires waiting years to get returns. Yet most economic models don’t take into account that waiting has its own costs and benefits – such as the dread sometimes felt waiting for something bad to occur or the eagerness in waiting for a happy event. “The current study shows that anticipation itself becomes part of the consumption pattern,” says Kevin McCabe, a neuroscientist and economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. “I think if [the findings] hold up, it basically does imply different policies for dealing with losses than the way standard economics models would approach them.”
The findings might also help to explain seemingly odd decisions, such as why some people overeat or use addictive drugs, which they know are harmful in the long run. “These findings emphasize the role of immediate emotions rather than abstract trade-offs,” says George Lowenstein, an economist and psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University. While scientists aren’t yet sure why some people are more likely to overeat or become addicted to drugs, one theory is that they value short-term pleasure over long-term health. But the new study suggests these people may instead be trying to avoid the unpleasantness of waiting, says Lowenstein. “If someone is overeating, it’s not that they don’t care about being obese. They find it very uncomfortable in the here and now to desist from eating.”
Berns and colleagues are now studying different aspects of decision-making, such as how adolescents make choices when faced with rewards and how adults do so when negative consequences are uncertain. Berns points out that the recruiting process for the experiment may have screened out certain types of people, though, such as super-extreme dreaders. “When we told people on the phone that the experiment would involve shocks, many dropped out right then,” he says.
McCabe says it would be interesting to see how people with phobias, such as fear of flying or heights, react to dread. “These people do try to avoid the circumstances as long as possible,” says McCabe. “It would be interesting to see how this normal circuitry is different in those people’s brains.”