Skip to main content

Behavior Economics Lab

The Behavioral Economics Lab at Utah State University explores how human and nonhuman behavior may be positively influenced through curated environmental design. Our research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIDA and NICHD) and the US Department of Agriculture. Brief descriptions of our ongoing research may be found below.


                Reducing Impulsive Choice. Our lab has published several studies investigating training techniques that can produce large and long-lasting reductions in impulsive choice in rats. One technique, know as delay-exposure training, has accomplished this goal (Renda & Madden, 2016; Rung et al, 2018; Renda et al., 2018; Stein et al., 2013; Stein et al., 2015). The long-term goal of this research line is to develop a curriculum for improving self-control in young children. In accord with the groundbreaking research of Walter Mischel, such improvements in the ability to delay gratification may promote success and prevent addictions.  Dr. Madden’s collaborator on this future direction is Dr. Sarah Pinkelman in USU’s Department of Special Education.

Before delay-exposure training can be translated to humans, a better understanding of its behavioral mechanism(s) of change should be explored. One candidate mechanism is an improvement in interval timing. Although some evidence suggests impulsive rats are less precise at interval timing, Jillian Rung and her collaborators in the Behavioral Economics Lab found that delay-exposure training reduced impulsive choice without impacting interval timing (Rung et al., 2018). After Jillian graduated, Sara Peck undertook a second study in this line. Her experiment tested the hypothesis that delay-exposure training works by decreasing rats’ aversion to delay. This hypothesis was supported, as rats that underwent delay-exposure training were less impulsive (replicating the delay-exposure effect for the 6th time) and they chose to escape from delay-signaling stimuli less often than control rats (Peck et al., in preparation). An ongoing study is exploring the hypothesis that delay-exposure training helps rats to learn how delayed-reinforcement contingencies operate (Peck et al., ongoing). This research is supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Allomorphic Choice.  Steep delay discounting is robustly correlated with problem drug use in humans. The hypothesized behavioral mechanism underlying this correlation is that drug-dependent individuals steeply discount the delayed benefits of drug abstinence, or the delayed negative consequences of continued drug use. In this human drug-taking context, the individual chooses between the reinforcing effects of a drug now vs. a larger-later non-drug reward. Despite the ubiquity of this allomorphic choice between qualitatively different outcomes, we rarely arrange these choices in the animal lab. Emma Preston, a graduate student in the Behavioral Economics Lab is conducting preliminary research with rats that are choosing between an immediate drug reward (cocaine) and a better-later non-drug reward (a sweet nutritional liquid). This research is supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  In future studies we will evaluate if rats that complete delay-exposure training are less likely to self-administer cocaine in this allomorphic choice arrangement than control rats that do not receive this training.

Industriousness Training. Researchers are increasingly interested in effort discounting as it correlates with a host of socially significant behaviors, including drug use. Sara Peck, a graduate student in the Behavioral Economics Lab, arrived at USU in 2017 with a strong interest in effort. Her ongoing research is exploring if industriousness training (modelled after Robert Eisenberger’s work on learned industriousness) can produce large and long-lasting reductions in effort-based impulsive choice. She will also evaluate if this training impacts delay-based impulsive choice.

Applied Research. Dr. Madden collaborates with researchers in other departments and at other universities on projects designed to impact socially significant human behavior. For example, together with colleagues in USU’s department of Nutrition, he has developed the FIT Game – a school-based cooperative game that increases fruit and vegetable consumption in elementary school cafeterias (Jones et al., 2014a, 2014b; Joyner et al., 2017).