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The Rationality of Near Bias toward both Future and Past Events


In recent years, a disagreement has erupted between two camps of philosophers about the rationality of bias toward the near (“near bias”) and bias toward the future (“future bias”). According to the traditional hybrid view, near bias is rationally impermissible, while future bias is either rationally permissible or obligatory. Time neutralists, meanwhile, argue that the hybrid view is untenable. They claim that those who reject near bias should reject both biases and embrace time neutrality. To date, experimental work has focused on future-directed near bias. The primary aim of this paper is to shed light on the debate by investigating past-directed near bias. If people treat the past and future differently with respect to near bias, by being future-directed but not past-directed near biased, then this supports a particular version of the hybrid view: temporal metaphysic hybridism. If people treat the past and future the same with respect to near bias, then this supports a simple version of time neutralism, which explains both future bias and near bias in terms of the functioning of a single mechanism: the anticipatory/retrospectory mechanism. Our results undermine the claim that people are future-directed, but not past-directed, near biased, and hence do not support temporal metaphysic hybridism. They also fail to support simple time-neutralism; instead, they suggest that there are multiple mechanisms that differently shape future- and past-directed preferences.

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  1. While discount rates feature prominently in economic models of decision making, there is an important difference between the discounting of positive and negative experiences—which John Broome (1991) calls “pure” discounting—and the discounting of commodities used by economists in cost-benefit analysis. This paper concerns pure discounting.

  2. See Greene and Sullivan (2015, §2). Sidgwick (1884, 380–1) writes, “The mere difference of priority and posteriority in time is not a reasonable ground for having more regard to the consciousness of one moment than to that of another. The form in which it practically presents itself to most men is ‘that a smaller present good is not to be preferred to a greater future good’ (allowing for difference of certainty).” Rawls (1971, 293) reiterates the point: “A present or near future advantage may be counted more heavily on account of its greater certainty or probability, and we should take into consideration how our situation and capacity for particular enjoyments will change. But none of these things justifies our preferring a lesser present to a greater future good simply because of its nearer temporal position.” (See also Lewis (1946); Nagel (1970); Broome (1991); and Brink (2011)).

  3. Explicit supporters of the rationality of hedonic future bias include Prior (1959); Hare (2007, 2008), and Heathwood (2008).

  4. Defenders of this view include Prior (1959); Schlesinger (1976); Craig (1999); and Pearson (2018).

  5. Critics of hedonic future bias include Brink (2011); Greene and Sullivan (2015); and Dougherty (2015).

  6. To our knowledge this literature is exhausted by Yi et al. (2006); Bickel et al. (2008) and Molouki et al. (2019).

  7. Heathwood (2008, 56–7): “[A future-biased agent] is being completely reasonable in preferring that his pain be in the past. In fact, even his no longer caring at all that it occurred is perfectly fitting—not at all in inappropriate. Why should he care about it now? No reason—it’s over and done with.” Likewise, Sullivan (2018, 58) claims that “we assign no value to a merely past painful experience or pleasurable experience”. See also Parfit (1984, 173) and Dorsey (2018) (though neither defends this view as part of a commitment to temporal metaphysic hybridism.).

  8. This view is suggested by Hume (1738) and by Suhler and Callender (2012, 5). It is endorsed by Yehezkel (2014, 11).

  9. Early experiments on future-directed near bias—what social scientists call temporal discounting—indicate a “pervasive devaluation of the future” (Ainslie and Haslam (1992, 59)). For example, in the experiments of Thaler (1981); Hausman (1979); and Akerlof (1991), people assigned less value to future money, time, and effort, respectively, than their present analogues. Similar results in animal studies backed this idea; e.g., Green et al. (1981). However, a meta-analysis done between 1978 and 2002 (Frederick et al. (2002, 377)), found “tremendous variability” in estimates of people’s average discount rate.

  10. These vignettes are based on those used in Greene et al. (2020).

  11. Cf. Greene et al. (2020).

  12. One might worry that these results are due to using hypothetical scenarios to test participants’ preferences. At least in some behavioural economics studies, participants’ preferences are tested under non-hypothetical conditions in which, for instance, they gain or miss out on real money. Clearly, the testing of past-directed preferences cannot be done in anything other than a hypothetical manner. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that a number of studies have found very similar results when comparing participants’ responses to hypothetical and non-hypothetical scenarios (Lagorio and Madden (2005); Johnson and Bickel (2002)).

  13. See Benzion et al. (1989); Loewenstein (1987); and MacKeigan et al. (1993).


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Greene, P., Holcombe, A., Latham, A.J. et al. The Rationality of Near Bias toward both Future and Past Events. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 905–922 (2021).

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