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J Cogn Neurosci. 2011 Apr;23(4):857-66. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21479. Epub 2010 Mar 29.

Medial prefrontal cortex predicts intertemporal choice.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


People often make shortsighted decisions to receive small benefits in the present rather than large benefits in the future, that is, to favor their current selves over their future selves. In two studies using fMRI, we demonstrated that people make such decisions in part because they fail to engage in the same degree of self-referential processing when thinking about their future selves. When participants predicted how much they would enjoy an event in the future, they showed less activity in brain regions associated with introspective self-reference--such as the ventromedial pFC (vMPFC)--than when they predicted how much they would enjoy events in the present. Moreover, the magnitude of vMPFC reduction predicted the extent to which participants made shortsighted monetary decisions several weeks later. In light of recent findings that the vMPFC contributes to the ability to simulate future events from a first-person perspective, these data suggest that shortsighted decisions result in part from a failure to fully imagine the subjective experience of one's future self.

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