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Humans frequently need to allocate resources across multiple time-steps. Economic theory proposes that subjects do so according to a stable set of intertemporal preferences, but the computational demands of such decisions encourage the use of formally less competent heuristics. Few empirical studies have examined dynamic resource allocation decisions systematically. Here we conducted an experiment involving the dynamic consumption over approximately 15 minutes of a limited budget of relief from moderately painful stimuli. We had previously elicited the participants' time preferences for the same painful stimuli in one-off choices, allowing us to assess self-consistency. Participants exhibited three characteristic behaviors: saving relief until the end, spreading relief across time, and early spending, of which the last was markedly less prominent. The likelihood that behavior was heuristic rather than normative is suggested by the weak correspondence between one-off and dynamic choices. We show that the consumption choices are consistent with a combination of simple heuristics involving early-spending, spreading or saving of relief until the end, with subjects predominantly exhibiting the last two.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS computational biology

Publication Date





Centre for Health Policy, Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London, London, United Kingdom; Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London, United Kingdom.


Humans, Pain, Choice Behavior, Computational Biology, Models, Neurological, Female, Male, Anticipation, Psychological, Pain Management, Heuristics