Before Trump’s about-face, some commentators rightly noticed that, politically, he was making a mistake by downplaying the virus. “The strangest part” of Trump’s initial refusal to take the virus more seriously, the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt observed, was “that it’s almost certainly damaging his chances of re-election.” Leonhardt’s point was that what Trump should care about most is not his approval rating now but his approval rating when Americans vote in November. Thus, from the moment scientists started warning about the COVID-19 threat, Trump should have called for extensive measures to contain it. Yes, those measures might have hurt the economy—and his popularity—in the short term. But they would have increased the chances that America tamed the virus by summer, thus allowing an economic rebound in the fall, as Americans went to the polls.
Why didn’t Trump do that? The answer may lie in an insight from behavioral economics called hyperbolic discounting. The insight is that people overvalue the present and undervalue the future. Some overvaluing is reasonable: Better to get $10 today than $10 in a week, because there’s always some uncertainty about whether a promise will come true. But people choose what researchers call the smaller-sooner reward over the larger-later reward to an irrational degree.
Some people, however, overvalue the here and now more than others do. A 2014 study in the journal NeuroImage examined the effect of the “big five” personality traits on hyperbolic discounting.