Designing and Validating a Novel Method for Assessing Delay Discounting Associated With Health Behaviors: Ecological Momentary Assessment Study

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Background: Delay discounting quantifies an individual's preference for smaller, short-term rewards over larger, long-term rewards and represents a transdiagnostic factor associated with numerous adverse health outcomes. Rather than a fixed trait, delay discounting may vary over time and place, influenced by individual and contextual factors. Continuous, real-time measurement could inform adaptive interventions for various health conditions. Objective: The goals of this paper are 2-fold. First, we present and validate a novel, short, ecological momentary assessment (EMA)-based delay discounting scale we developed. Second, we assess this tool's ability to reproduce known associations between delay discounting and health behaviors (ie, substance use and craving) using a convenience-based sample. Methods: Participants (N=97) were adults (age range 18-71 years), recruited on social media. In phase 1, data were collected on participant sociodemographic characteristics, and delay discounting was evaluated via the traditional Monetary Choice Questionnaire (MCQ) and our novel method (ie, 7-item time-selection and 7-item monetary-selection scales). During phase 2 (approximately 6 months later), participants completed the MCQ, our novel delay discounting measures, and health outcomes questions. The correlations between our method and the traditional MCQ within and across phases were examined. For scale reduction, a random number of items were iteratively selected, and the correlation between the full and random scales was assessed. We then examined the association between our time- and monetary-selection scales assessed during phase 2 and the percentage of assessments that participants endorsed using or craving alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis. Results: In total, 6 of the 7 individual time-selection items were highly correlated with the full scale (r>0.89). Both time-selection (r=0.71; P<.001) and monetary-selection (r=0.66; P<.001) delay discounting rates had high test-retest reliability across phases 1 and 2. Phase 1 MCQ delay discounting function highly correlated with phase 1 (r=0.76; P<.001) and phase 2 (r=0.45; P<.001) time-selection delay discounting scales. One or more randomly chosen time-selection items were highly correlated with the full scale (r>0.94). Greater delay discounting measured via the time-selection measure (adjusted mean difference=5.89, 95% CI 1.99-9.79), but not the monetary-selection scale (adjusted mean difference=-0.62, 95% CI -3.57 to 2.32), was associated with more past-hour tobacco use endorsement in follow-up surveys. Conclusions: This study evaluated a novel EMA-based scale's ability to validly and reliably assess delay discounting. By measuring delay discounting with fewer items and in situ via EMA in natural environments, researchers may be better able to identify individuals at risk for poor health outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJMIR Formative Research
StatePublished - 2024


  • Monetary Choice Questionnaire
  • delay discounting
  • ecological momentary assessment
  • measurement
  • mobile phone
  • monetary
  • questionnaire
  • reward
  • rewards
  • substance abuse
  • substance use
  • survey
  • validation
  • validity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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