It’s a discounting life: from football to sunburn

Discounting is a powerful effect and a constant in our lives. Let’s say that I tell you that I’ll give you $20 if you jump up and down 10 times. I am guessing that you’ll be jumping forthwith. Now consider your response if I tell you that I’ll give you $20 next year if you jump up and down 10 times right now. I suspect that your feet will stay planted on the ground. The $20 benefit is greatly discounted if you are to receive it in one year compared to right now.

There are endless variations of this game. The cost of the task, size of the benefit and interval between task and benefit all play roles in our decision of whether to perform the task. For example, you’d probably jump up and down right now for a couple of million paid out in a year. And you may even jump up and down if the payoff was a couple of million paid out when and only if you reach age 105. Jumping up and down is sufficiently low-cost for many of us that we would throw the dice just in case. But if the task were doing a polar swim (e.g. going into Lake Michigan during the Chicago winter), I for one, would not do that for such a remote and iffy payoff.

Similar to our penchant for discounting benefits, we also discount harm. People are told all the time that smoking, drinking, and over-eating will lead to poor health. But that promise of poor health exists in the future. The poor health is strongly discounted by most people and warnings about adverse health consequences have not yet put an end to any of the above activities.

What does this have to do with football and sunburn? Thousands of young men play football despite compelling evidence that knocks on the head are leading to severe neurological impairment including dementia at a frightful rate. It appears that even head trauma that does not lead to frank concussion can lead to eventual impairment. But the interval between head trauma and impairment appears to vary and is often measured in years. Consequently, future debilitation is sufficiently discounted that young men continue to play football in a number of leagues. What would happen if the bargain was that a player would lose the ability to form memories and become irritable and confused and that these impairments would start on the morning after the end of the football season? I suspect a few more young men would choose not to play football.

Recently, whatever judgmental feelings I felt for football players came into relief when I went on vacation to sunny Mexico (home to the blue-footed booby of previous posts). I love the feeling of sun on my face. Upon arriving in Mexico, I promptly basked in the sun. I ignored suggestions to put on sunblock. I ignored warnings of sunburn. One day later, my face was on its way to blistering! I ended up catching it just in time but had to spend the rest of the vacation walking around under an umbrella. So Victorian and so not me!!

In response to popular demand, here is a picture of me with my “parasol”.


And to return to the subject at hand, the reality is that we discount both harm and benefits that are not happening right now. I guess we’re built to stay in the moment!


  1. women in my fathers family have all had some form of cancer, breast, cervical, ovarian. My Great-grandmother, my grandmother,( who had two girls, one of them died of cancer in her early 50’s, the other is cancer free from what I know. My self and my two other female cousins have all had some from of cancer. THis is a scary thing for all of us, but I havenot always had the suggested amounts of mammograms or pap smears, i just watch for signs very closely and watch my diet.


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