Time Constraint and Decision Making

Catherine Warren

19 April 2019

Dr. Rettinger

Time Constraint and Decision Making

Every day, everywhere, everyone makes decisions. Whether that choice is to have coffee versus tea in the morning or whether or not to send troops to a foreign nation, everyone experiences decision making all the time and they use cognitive energy to do so. The utility theory tells us that people make these choices by observing which choice or option is most useful and by weighing the costs and benefits. When there is uncertainty about an option’s usefulness or costs and benefits, we generally choose options that are the “most likely.”The utility theory may be best described by its equation: Expected utility of an event= probability of an outcome x utility of an outcome. But the utility theory can’t explain everything about the decisions we make. For example when people gamble, they are more likely to make risky decisions for losses, and less likely to do so for gains. The prospect theory tries to explain decision making differently because not all probabilities are perceived equally, as the valuations are made based on a reference point. The gains and losses are also viewed separately. Given all of this, it is interesting to consider how time may affect decisions. Do rushed decisions have different cognitive processes than those decisions we have time to think through?

Steven Miletic and Leendert van Maanen conducted a study titled “Caution in Decision Making under Time Pressure is Mediated by Timing Ability.” While the title is a bit of a spoiler, I thought this piece was really fitting for the question I’ve posed. Miletic and Maanen set out to test this concept because they believed “the relation between temporal cognition and decision-making under time pressure is poorly understood.” Using a time reproduction task and a perceptual decision making task, the experimenters found “that precision correlated significantly with mean reaction time” and “participants with a higher temporal precision made slower and more accurate decisions in the choice task.” Each of these tasks was done on a computer and involved reproducing an amount of time using a space bar and deciding which circle on their screen appeared most frequently. The researchers were interested in temporal cognition, and people’s existing abilities to accurately represent time. The study found that people with an accurate representation of time made more cautious decisions, evidence that people collapse decision bounds under time pressure, and no relation between temporal cognition and collapsing decision bounds. These results were in a fairly direct contrast to what the researchers describe as “predictions from theory of optimal decision-making” made previously.

What feels interesting about this topic to me is that it makes perfect sense to assume that decisions made under time constraints will differ, or even be worse than those not under time constraints, but why is this? Going back to the utility theory or the prospect theory, could this be because we don’t have time to create valuations? Or the time to weigh costs and benefits accurately? Steven Miletic and Leendert van Maanen’s research may tell us that the real indicators of decision success may be an already existing skill of being able to accurately represent time, however the big-picture take away of their study is that people in general collapse decision bounds under time pressure, regardless of how strong their temporal cognition is.


Miletić, S., & van Maanen, L. (2019). Caution in decision-making under time pressure is mediated by timing ability. Cognitive Psychology, 110, 16-29.