George W. Ainslie is a contemporary psychiatrist and professor who pioneered the field of picoeconomics. He determined that people prefer short-term gratification rather than waiting for a larger reward in the future.

Professional Life

George Ainslie works as a research psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and as a professor in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Contribution to Psychology

George W. Ainslie is the founder of picoeconomics (micro-micro-economics), a term that he used to describe a person’s preference of choosing instant gratification versus delaying gratification for a future outcome. Conducting research with pigeons, under the supervision of Howard Rachlin, Ainslie discovered a preference for immediate reward rather than delayed gratification. In subsequent experiments, Ainslie discovered that if given a choice between an instant payoff or a delayed reward, people would increasingly be inclined to select the reward that was would present itself sooner. Therefore, Ainslie’s picoeconomics is based on operant conditioning, a theory that suggests that people have a preference for rewards that are delivered sooner over rewards delivered at a later point in time. Subsequently, Ainslie determined that the further the reward is delayed, the less valuable it becomes, resulting in an increase in preference for an immediate outcome.

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Ainslie used his behavioral economist experience to study the behaviors that led to picoeconomics. Subsequent studies have served to support Ainslie’s theory. Research has been conducted on animals and humans to reveal that preference trends toward a hyperbolic curve as opposed to an exponential one that would present consistent preferences over a specific time horizon. For example, Ainslie's research demonstrates that most people would choose receiving a small sum of money now than waiting a month or a year to get a larger sum of money.

His research has been compiled and published in various works that integrate evidence from Richard Herrnstein's matching law and Walter Mischel’s theories relative to gratification delay in children. Ainslie has also published research and theoretical works concerning addiction from his experience in addressing the needs of veterans during his time at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Coatesville Pennsylvania. Ainslie explores the rationality of preference in economics and his theory of an “internal marketplace.” In addition, Ainslie examines the behavioral techniques used and required to control the impulsivity of instant gratification and the internal disturbances this can cause.

Ainslie continues to make seminal contributions and provide analysis to further explore his theory of picoeconomics. His book Picoeconomics: The Strategic Interaction of Successive Motivational States within the Person (Cambridge University Press, 1992) addresses human struggles with delayed gratification, even drawing on the biblical story of Adam and Eve to emphasize that Eve's decision to eat fruit in the Garden of Eden is a classic example of the sorts of motivational conflicts humans regularly face. Breakdown of Will (Cambridge University Press, 2001) attempts to address the problem of temptation. Traditional models argue in favor of rational choice, but Ainslie emphasizes that goal-seeking processes in humans often result in conflict. People tend to have several goal-seeking responses aimed at getting various rewards at various times, and these functions bargain with one another—it is this bargaining that can formulate the beginning of skills such as willpower. 

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