A Re-examination of Melioration and Rational Choice

Richard J. Tunney*, David R. Shanks

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We examined how people allocate choices between two alternatives when the payoff from each alternative varied as a function of the allocation of recent choices. On any one trial alternative A had a higher immediate payoff than alternative B, but across all trials B had a higher overall payoff than A. Rational choice theory requires that participants allocate all their responses to the alternative with the greatest overall payoff irrespective of which has the higher immediate payoff. Melioration, in contrast, proposes that participants are motivated to choose the alternative with the higher immediate payoff, irrespective of the consequences for future returns. We report four experiments in which we varied the nature of the payoffs. Participants exhibited self-control consistent with rational choice theory when payoffs varied in magnitude, but exhibited impulsiveness consistent with melioration when the payoffs varied in probability. Finally, we show that impulsivity when payoffs varied in probability can be overcome following un-reinforced practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)291-311
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Behavioral Decision Making
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2002


  • Choice
  • Inter-temporal choice
  • Learning
  • Maximization
  • Melioration
  • Rationality
  • Reinforcement
  • Self-control


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