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Impatience, Incentives and Obesity


  • We thank the editor, three anonymous referees, Dan Becker, Tim Classen, Michael Grossman, Stephen Holland, Debra Holt, Pauline Ippolito, Brian Rowe, Chris Ruhm, Ken Snowden, Chris Wheeler, Erez Yoeli and Harry Zhang for helpful comments. We also thank seminar participants at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Yale University, Federal Trade Commission, Canadian Competition Bureau, National Bureau of Economic Research Health Economics Program Spring Meeting, International Health Economics Association World Congress and Southern Economic Association Annual Meeting for useful feedback. Will Mautz, Cody Reinhardt, Camden Sweed and Xilin Zhou provided excellent research assistance. This research was conducted using restricted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the BLS. We are grateful to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for funding.


This article explores the relationship between time preferences, economic incentives and body mass index (BMI). We provide evidence of an interaction effect between time preference and food prices, with cheaper food leading to the largest weight gains among those exhibiting the most impatience. The interaction of changing economic incentives with heterogeneous discounting may help explain why increases in BMI have been concentrated amongst the distribution's right tail. We also model time-inconsistent preferences by computing individuals’ quasi-hyperbolic discounting parameters. Both long-run patience and present-bias predict BMI, suggesting obesity is partly attributable to both rational intertemporal tradeoffs and time inconsistency.