Dread and the disvalue of future pain.
Story GW., Vlaev I., Seymour B., Winston JS., Darzi A., Dolan RJ.
Standard theories of decision-making involving delayed outcomes predict that people should defer a punishment, whilst advancing a reward. In some cases, such as pain, people seem to prefer to expedite punishment, implying that its anticipation carries a cost, often conceptualized as 'dread'. Despite empirical support for the existence of dread, whether and how it depends on prospective delay is unknown. Furthermore, it is unclear whether dread represents a stable component of value, or is modulated by biases such as framing effects. Here, we examine choices made between different numbers of painful shocks to be delivered faithfully at different time points up to 15 minutes in the future, as well as choices between hypothetical painful dental appointments at time points of up to approximately eight months in the future, to test alternative models for how future pain is disvalued. We show that future pain initially becomes increasingly aversive with increasing delay, but does so at a decreasing rate. This is consistent with a value model in which moment-by-moment dread increases up to the time of expected pain, such that dread becomes equivalent to the discounted expectation of pain. For a minority of individuals pain has maximum negative value at intermediate delay, suggesting that the dread function may itself be prospectively discounted in time. Framing an outcome as relief reduces the overall preference to expedite pain, which can be parameterized by reducing the rate of the dread-discounting function. Our data support an account of disvaluation for primary punishments such as pain, which differs fundamentally from existing models applied to financial punishments, in which dread exerts a powerful but time-dependent influence over choice.