British Journal of Political Science


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

Alan M. Jacobs and J. Scott Matthews *


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.

(Online publication May 10 2012)


*  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: