Behavioral science has long been puzzled by the experience of temptation, the resulting impulsiveness, and the variably successful control of this impulsiveness. In conventional theories, a governing faculty like the ego evaluates future choices consistently over time, discounting their value for delay exponentially, that is, by a constant rate; impulses arise when this ego is confronted by a conditioned appetite. Breakdown of Will (Ainslie 2001) presents evidence that contradicts this model. Both people and nonhuman animals spontaneously discount the value of expected events in a curve where value is divided approximately by expected delay, a hyperbolic form that is more bowed than the rational, exponential curve.
With hyperbolic discounting, options that pay off quickly will be temporarily preferred to richer but slower-paying alternatives, a phenomenon that, over periods from minutes to days, can account for impulsive behaviors, and over periods of fractional seconds can account for involuntary behaviors. Contradictory reward-getting processes can in effect bargain with each other, and stable preferences can be established by the perception of recurrent choices as test cases (precedents) in recurrent intertemporal prisoner's dilemmas. The resulting motivational pattern resembles traditional descriptions of the will, as well as of compulsive phenomena that can now be seen as side-effects of will: over-concern with precedent, intractable but circumscribed failures of self-control, a motivated (“dynamic”) unconscious, and an inability to exploit emotional rewards. Hyperbolic curves also suggest a means of reducing classical conditioning to motivated choice, the last necessary step for modeling many involuntary processes like emotion and appetite as reward-seeking behaviors; such modeling, in turn, provides a rationale for empathic reward and the “construction” of reality.