Is there a name for the types of human behavioural problems where making a particular choice isn't a problem, but making the same choice over and over again leads to a bad outcome? Where there is an immediate short-term pay-off for making the choice one way, but a small long-term cost to doing it?

Some examples of these types of problems are:

  • weight gain
  • personal debt
  • litter

I think it's a really interesting type of problem because you have to override the short term motivation many, many times to get the long term pay off.

  • $\begingroup$ "difficulty of envisioning long-term consequences". See this for discussion from a psy perspective. The economics version is much better known as the Keynesian "in the long run we're all dead." $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2017 at 17:15

2 Answers 2


I don't think there is quite an established term for it; I found several:

  • "difficulty of envisioning long-term consequences" will turn up occasionally in discussing behavior such as smoking
  • "reward obscures risk" is a bit more punchy, but it fails to capture temporal aspect: long-term risk vs short-term reward
  • time preference aka temporal discounting is a well established economics notion that discounts more distant rewards (and risks) But it doesn't quite capture the contrast you want here
  • "delay disconting" means the same and there are at least 60 papers in pubmed, for this term, according to this one
  • PIG -- problem of immediate gratification; this is the self-help/drug-abuse [re]formulation of the aforementioned economics principle
  • short-termism; almost exclusively used in business circles
  • akrasia [credit goes entirely to Arnon Weinberg for finding this one]; it seems this the philosophers' favorite term.

I'm sure there are more.

After akrasia got mentioned in the other answer, I was pretty sure this gotta be the most used term in phych, because it has quite the pedigree. Alas, it didn't turn out to be so, the number of pubmed publications mentioning it is only a dozen for the base term and about half-dozen for the "akratic" adjective. So I think "delay discounting" is the most used in the psych & health sciences. There's even one paper that explicitly says so, although the paper is written by a management guy.

  • $\begingroup$ And I know you didn't ask for this, but I for one found amazing that researchers were able to prove that midbrain dopamine neurons literally encode such a time discounting function: pnas.org/content/108/37/15462.full.pdf $\endgroup$ Nov 6, 2017 at 7:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Can also add hyperbolic discounting, which is used in behaviour economics. Along with time preference / delay discounting, these are attempts to describe the short-term/long-term tradeoff mathematically. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Nov 6, 2017 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ @ArnonWeinberg: My understanding is that hyperbolic discounting is one particular instance (as in a specified function) of time-discounting. I do see the point that it's probably the most common one so synonymous in this sense. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2017 at 21:46

I agree with @Fizz that there is probably no specific name for the type of problem in question, but the behaviour involved is referred to as self-control, or more loosely, willpower. Thus, the type of problem can be referred to as a self-control dilemma:

Self-control dilemmas occur when long-term goals and values clash with short-term temptations. ... One of the most common self-control dilemmas involves the desire for unhealthy or unneeded food consumption versus the desire to maintain long-term health. ... Weak temptations present more of a challenge to overcome than strong temptations, because they appear less likely to compromise long-term values.

and accordingly temptation:

Temptation is a desire to engage in short-term urges for enjoyment, that threatens long-term goals.

Chronic failure to meet long-term goals / succumbing to temptations is called akrasia, or "weakness of will". The opposite is delayed gratification - also see the Marshmallow experiment.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree with your answer, but I think the term "instant gratification" can be used : see wiki instant and delayed gratification. Also sometimes is reffered to as immediate gratification. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2017 at 10:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.