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The pervasive tendency to discount the value of future rewards varies considerably across individuals and has important implications for health and well-being. Here, we used fMRI with human participants to examine whether an individual's neural representation of an imagined primary reward predicts the degree to which the value of delayed monetary payments is discounted. Because future rewards can never be experienced at the time of choice, imagining or simulating the benefits of a future reward may play a critical role in decisions between alternatives with either immediate or delayed benefits. We found that enhanced ventromedial prefrontal cortex response during imagined primary reward receipt was correlated with reduced discounting in a separate monetary intertemporal choice task. Furthermore, activity in enhanced ventromedial prefrontal cortex during reward imagination predicted temporal discounting behavior both between- and within-individual decision makers with 62% and 73% mean balanced accuracy, respectively. These results suggest that the quality of reward imagination may impact the degree to which future outcomes are discounted. Significance statement: We report a novel test of the hypothesis that an important factor influencing the discount rate for future rewards is the quality with which they are imagined or estimated in the present. Previous work has shown that temporal discounting is linked to individual characteristics ranging from general intelligence to the propensity for addiction. We demonstrate that individual differences in a neurobiological measure of primary reward imagination are significantly correlated with discounting rates for future monetary payments. Moreover, our neurobiological measure of imagination can be used to accurately predict choice behavior both between and within individuals. These results suggest that improving reward imagination may be a useful therapeutic target for individuals whose high discount rates promote detrimental behaviors.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date





13103 - 13109


decision making, fMRI, neuroeconomics, temporal discounting, Adult, Brain, Brain Mapping, Decision Making, Delay Discounting, Female, Humans, Image Processing, Computer-Assisted, Imagination, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Oxygen, Reward, Young Adult