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Can delay discounting deliver on the promise of RDoC?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 August 2018

Karolina M. Lempert
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Joanna E. Steinglass
Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY, USA New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY, USA
Anthony Pinto
Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY, USA Division of Psychiatry Research, Zucker Hillside Hospital, Northwell Health System, Glen Oaks, NY, USA Department of Psychiatry, Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, Hempstead, NY, USA
Joseph W. Kable
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Helen Blair Simpson*
Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY, USA New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY, USA
Author for correspondence: Blair H. Simpson, E-mail:


The National Institute of Mental Health launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) initiative to better understand dimensions of behavior and identify targets for treatment. Examining dimensions across psychiatric illnesses has proven challenging, as reliable behavioral paradigms that are known to engage specific neural circuits and translate across diagnostic populations are scarce. Delay discounting paradigms seem to be an exception: they are useful for understanding links between neural systems and behavior in healthy individuals, with potential for assessing how these mechanisms go awry in psychiatric illnesses. This article reviews relevant literature on delay discounting (or the rate at which the value of a reward decreases as the delay to receipt increases) in humans, including methods for examining it, its putative neural mechanisms, and its application in psychiatric research. There exist rigorous and reproducible paradigms to evaluate delay discounting, standard methods for calculating discount rate, and known neural systems probed by these paradigms. Abnormalities in discounting have been associated with psychopathology ranging from addiction (with steep discount rates indicating relative preference for immediate rewards) to anorexia nervosa (with shallow discount rates indicating preference for future rewards). The latest research suggests that delay discounting can be manipulated in the laboratory. Extensively studied in cognitive neuroscience, delay discounting assesses a dimension of behavior that is important for decision-making and is linked to neural substrates and to psychopathology. The question now is whether manipulating delay discounting can yield clinically significant changes in behavior that promote health. If so, then delay discounting could deliver on the RDoC promise.

Review Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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Karolina M. Lempert and Joanna E. Steinglass contributed equally to this work.


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