Navigating intertemporal choices: Mental time travel, perspectival imagery, and prudent decision-making

Christopher Jude McCarroll*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


We have the capacity to mentally project ourselves into the personal past and future. We typically see and feel these past and future events unfold before our mind's eye, "reexperiencing" or "preexperiencing" them. This capacity is known as mental time travel (MTT). We can predict, plan, and prepare for the future based, in part, on our knowledge of the past. Often, however, we fail to give sufficient weight to future outcomes. We discount the future, seeking immediate gratification at the expense of long-term reward. It has been proposed that MTT is crucial to overcoming this tendency to discount future rewards. MTT enables us to preexperience the emotional impact of a future reward and this supports future-oriented decision-making. Yet the imagery of MTT involves distinct visual perspectives. Sometimes we visualize the event from a field perspective, seeing the scene from our own eyes. But often, the imagery of MTT involves an external observer perspective, and we see ourselves in the past or future scenario. Observer perspectives are often thought to be phenomenally and affectively dry. This creates a puzzle. If much of the imagery of MTT involves observer perspectives, then using such imagery to think about a future reward may not provide the emotional force necessary for supporting future-oriented decision-making. I examine the role that observer perspectives play in simulating the future and supporting prudent decision-making. I show that observer perspectives can involve emotional imagery and that they can therefore help us to navigate intertemporal choices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)200-213
Number of pages14
JournalPsychology of Consciousness: Theory Research, and Practice
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2019


  • Intertemporal choice
  • Memory
  • Mental time travel
  • Observer perspectives
  • Temporal discounting


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