A standard assumption in the delay discounting literature is that individuals who exhibit steeper discounting of hypothetical rewards also experience greater difficulty deferring gratification to real-world rewards. There is ample cross-sectional evidence that delay discounting paradigms reflect a variety of maladaptive psychosocial outcomes, including substance use pathology. We sought to determine whether a computerized assessment of hypothetical delay discounting (HDD) taps into behavioral impulsivity in a community sample of adolescent twins (N = 675). Using a longitudinal design, we hypothesized that greater HDD at age 14-15 predicts real-world impulsive choices and risk for substance use disorders in late adolescence. We also examined the genetic and environmental structure of HDD performance. Individual differences in HDD behavior showed moderate heritability, and were prospectively associated with real-world temporal discounting at age 17-18. Contrary to expectations, HDD was not consistently related to substance use or trait impulsivity. Although a significant association between HDD behavior and past substance use emerged in males, this effect was mediated by cognitive ability. In both sexes, HDD failed to predict a comprehensive index of substance use problems and behavioral disinhibition in late adolescence. In sum, we present some of the first evidence that HDD performance is heritable and predictive of real-world temporal discounting of rewards. Nevertheless, HDD might not serve as a valid marker of substance use disorder risk in younger adolescents, particularly females.
- Delay discounting
- Substance use