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Why Do Citizens Discount the Future? Public Opinion and the Timing of Policy Consequences

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 May 2012


It is widely assumed that citizens are myopic, weighing policies’ short-term consequences more heavily than long-term outcomes. Yet no study of public opinion has directly examined whether or why the timing of future policy consequences shapes citizens’ policy attitudes. This article reports the results of an experiment designed to test for the presence and mechanisms of time-discounting in the mass public. The analysis yields evidence of significant discounting of delayed policy benefits and indicates that citizens’ policy bias towards the present derives in large part from uncertainty about the long term: uncertainty about both long-run processes of policy causation and long-term political commitments. There is, in contrast, little evidence that positive time-preferences (impatience) or consumption-smoothing are significant sources of myopic policy attitudes.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia (email:; and Department of Political Studies, Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario, respectively. The authors acknowledge the generous support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (#410-2006-1174) and the UBC Hampton Fund. For detailed comments on the paper or study protocol, we thank John Bullock, Fred Cutler, Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, Benjamin Nyblade, Andrew Owen, Dimitrios Panagos, Paul Quirk, and the journal's three anonymous reviewers. We also received helpful advice from Jason Barabas, Mick Couper, Brian Gaines, Donald Green, Sunshine Hillygus, Donald P. Haider-Markel, Simon Jackman, Richard Johnston, Jeffrey Mondak, Angela O'Mahony, Diana Mutz and Nicholas Winter. For superb research assistance, we thank Nico Dragojlovic, Anna Drake and Steven Klein. A Supplementary Appendix containing additional information is available online at:


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32 All pairwise correlations (r) between index components exceed 0.80. The mean of the index is 0.40 and the standard deviation is 0.29.

33 In identifying these controls, we began by estimating a regression model of reform support that included all variables in our dataset potentially relevant to subjects’ orientation towards the reform. This included variables affecting individuals’ distributive stake in the reform (age, income, employment status, retired status, number of children); cognitive engagement with politics (political and economic knowledge, need for cognition, education); political orientations (egalitarianism, congressional and presidential approval, support for ‘less government’ and for Social Security spending, gender, race); economic perceptions (personal current, personal prospective, national current, national prospective); and interview start and completion dates. We employ as our standard controls those variables that were statistically significant in this larger model. All demographic variables were collected separately by KN.

34 Complete question wordings for all measures are available in the on-line appendix.

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38 In the curvilinear model, we centre age to reduce multicollinearity between age and its square.

39 In the context of this experiment, we note that older respondents should have more reason to care about the survival of the Social Security programme and may, thus, be more supportive of reform that would save it. This fact, however, should not affect age's interaction with the timing of policy effects, as older respondents (assuming they are less patient than younger respondents) should still have a stronger preference for the quicker delivery of benefits.

40 We report results for just one model specification for each impatience-proxy. The results are substantively unchanged across all alternative specifications described above; full results for all models are available in the on-line appendix.

41 The questions are based on the standard ANES economic perceptions battery. However, whereas in the ANES respondents are asked about ‘the next 12 months’, our item asks about the period ‘5 to 10 years from now’ in order to elicit judgments over a time horizon relevant to the reform issue.

42 The difference of means is 0.04 (p = 0.017).

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44 See, e.g., Lupia and McCubbins, The Democratic Dilemma.

45 Results are given in the on-line appendix.

46 As only twenty-five respondents gave the most trusting response on the ‘waste’ measure, we group together responses at the two most trusting levels of the measure.

47 Separate models were estimated for each variable and included both ‘main’ and interactive effects (Timing×control) for all controls. Note that age is included as both a linear and a quadratic term. For variables not described elsewhere in this article, descriptions are available in the on-line appendix.

48 See on-line appendix for these results.

49 We also tested for another potential explanation: that the moderation of timing effects by fiscal trust might have reflected a tendency by high-trusters not to scrutinize – and, thus, not to absorb – the temporal features of the reform described in the policy brief. We collected data on two indicators of attention to and reception of the information in the policy brief: length of time subjects spent reading the policy brief and, as discussed earlier, subjects’ timing perceptions. We find that, in the presence of appropriate controls, fiscal trust has no significant effect on either of these variables (analyses not reported), indicating that the trust effect does not operate through inattention to policy detail.

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52 The results are reported in the on-line appendix.

53 In all conditions, the reform's costs were described numerically.

54 This result also disposes of a further potential influence on intertemporal attitudes: inflation. With monetary payoffs, subjects might hypothetically perceive longer-delayed benefits to be smaller because of expected price increases over time. However, inflationary reasoning is inconsistent with the presence of a significantly stronger timing effect in the verbal condition, where respondents were given no monetary benefit value that could be adjusted for inflation. In addition, respondents in the numerical condition were told that all figures were expressed in current dollars.

55 Given a current US life expectancy of 78 years, we would not expect any age effect for subjects over about 40 years in the forty-year condition because age has virtually no effect on expected benefit-stream length within this subgroup: all subjects above 40 could expect personally to receive 0 years of benefits in the forty-year condition.

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