Working Paper

Time Preference

Published: 2024

The study of time preference is concerned with decisions involving benefits and costs at different points in time. Many of the most consequential choices over the life course have this feature. This article was written to provide a high-level, non-technical overview of both conceptual and practical issues that arise in the measurement of time preference in experiments and surveys.

While the basic structure of a time preference experiment is simple, there are many variables that must be specified by the researcher, and these will depend on the purpose of the measurement. They include the model of time preference applicable to a situation, the use of incentives, the choice of elicitation procedures and delay structures, and whether and how to control for non-linear valuation of outcomes. Where full-scale measurement is not feasible or desirable, a variety of qualitative survey-based measures have also been validated.

In making design choices for a time preference study, researchers should consider among other things: whether time preference is a focal behaviour, key explanatory variable, or other covariate for the study at hand, whether the applicable time preference construct entails present bias and self-control problems, and the intended disciplinary audience. There is currently no methodological gold standard for the measurement of time preferences.


Cheung, S.L. (2024). ‘Time preference’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2024-05. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland. DOI: 10.14264/1a82294