Procrastination: the cognitive biases that allow it – and why it’s sometimes useful

The conversation

Do you procrastinate? I am. I’ve been putting off writing this article for the past few days even though I knew I had a deadline. I’ve scoured social media and been down a rabbit hole looking for homes on Rightmove – even though I don’t need a new home.

I also reviewed Tim Urban’s Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator video, one of the best Ted Talks I’ve seen. I found it particularly heartening to learn that even pigeons procrastinate.

Procrastination is an interesting form of delay that is irrational in the sense that we do it knowing that it can have negative consequences. These can range from penalties or fines for a late bill to a lower grade and even dropping out in the academic context. I know on some subconscious level that if I delay finishing the draft of my book, it will cause me stress when I have to finish it in a much shorter amount of time.

Since procrastination causes stress and anxiety, why are most of us still prone to it? As research shows, it is linked to a number of cognitive biases.

Bias present

The researchers defined procrastination as “the current bias in preferences, due to which agents delay performing unpleasant tasks that they themselves would like to complete sooner”. Present bias (or “hyperbolic discounting”) is the tendency, when considering a trade-off between two future times, to give more importance to the one that occurs earlier.

For example, we can ignore the future consequences of an action. It comes into play when I give in to temptation and eat another chocolate chip cookie even though I know I need to cut back on my sugar intake. My willpower can’t resist this inherent bias where I focus on instant pleasure.

Psychologically, we perceive the impact of an event – ​​or the value of a reward – as lessened if it is further in the future. This means that we perceive a desired outcome in the future as less valuable than an outcome in the present. It can also cause a disconnect from our future selves where we may perceive the positive consequences of completing a task as being done by someone else, rather than a future version of ourselves.

When we procrastinate, we choose a positive activity in the present (like watching cat videos or socializing) over a positive consequence later, like the satisfaction of completing a task or getting a good grade on an assignment. This normally also involves thinking about the negative consequences of procrastination at the same time. This is also the reason why people might put off saving for retirement.

In one study, when a group of students were offered two choices – US$150 (£122) now or US$200 six months from now – a significant majority chose the US$150 offered to them in the here. And when offered the choice between US$50 now and US$100 a year from now, many chose the immediate US$50. Our preference for things and our choices can be skewed by our temporal distance relative to those options.

We are hardwired to choose a smaller gain today than a larger gain tomorrow. That said, we all differ in our ability to fight this urge – some people are more biased towards the future or the past.

Status quo bias

As I showed in my book Sway, another cognitive bias that can come into play is status quo bias. Our brains are lazy and we want to avoid cognitive load as much as possible. So we’re hardwired to avoid tasks that change our mindset or cause cognitive load – we’d rather just stick with the relaxed mindset we have at the minute than engage. into something new and exhausting.

This essentially makes us resistant to change, because we fear actively regretting having made choices (when doing nothing is also a “choice”). Status quo bias can, for example, lead to “loss aversion bias” – causing us to focus on not losing. When in doubt, we basically tell ourselves to do nothing.

Losses are almost twice as psychologically harmful as gains are beneficial. In other words, most people experience twice as much psychological pain from losing $100 (£82) as they do from gaining $100. This bias means that people are reluctant to take risks by giving away what they have in favor of something that “could” benefit them more in the future.

Image of a man looking at his empty wallet, displeased.
It hurts to lose money. Image Credit: May Na Phatthalung/

Certain personality traits could influence your propensity to stick to the status quo. If you are open and curious about new things, less inclined to take risks and endowed with a strong sense of duty (conscience) you may be a little less affected by this bias.

Advantages and disadvantages

Procrastination is a universal experience, regardless of cultural differences. In my opinion, this is not a sign of laziness as it is often called. It’s not always bad to delay tasks. I think it sometimes gives us the opportunity to reflect on uncertainties. And research shows it can help us work through difficult emotions, which can lead to a better job down the road.

That said, sometimes procrastination can be a real obstacle. It may be due to an underlying mental health issue that requires support and treatment. If procrastination is seriously interfering with your life, you might want to start breaking tasks down into smaller chunks and setting rewards after each step.

But perhaps more importantly, forgive yourself for procrastinating. The more we internalize shame and guilt, the more likely we are to procrastinate in the future, and this can be an additional trigger that can compel us to procrastinate even more.

Ultimately, we all have different perceptions of time. Understanding individual differences can also help us better understand neurodiverse people. For example, some people have been found to distribute time differently and more inconsistently – time may not work linearly for them, but rather cyclically, which I can relate to.

It reminds me that I really should be filing my taxes now. No time like now. Or maybe after drinking another cup of coffee.The conversation

Pragya Agarwal, visiting professor on social inequalities and injustice, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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