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

Are you procrastinating? I am. I have been delaying writing this article for the last few days even though I knew I had a deadline. I have scrolled through social media, and I have gone down a rabbit hole looking up houses on Rightmove – even though I do not need a new house.

I have also re-watched the video Inside the mind of a master procrastinator by Tim Urban, one of the best TED talks I have seen. I found it especially comforting to learn that even pigeons procrastinate too.

Procrastination is an interesting form of delay which is irrational in the sense that we do it despite knowing it can have negative consequences. These can range from penalties or fines for a late bill to a lower grade and even a dropout 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 complete in a much shorter amount of time instead.

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

Present bias

Researchers have defined procrastination as the “present bias in preferences, on account of which agents delay doing unpleasant tasks that they themselves wish they would do sooner”. Present bias (or “hyperbolic discounting”) is the tendency, when considering a trade off between two future moments, to give more importance to the one which happens sooner.

For example, we may disregard the future consequences of an action. This comes into play when I give in to temptation and eat yet another chocolate biscuit even though I know I need to cut down on sugar. My willpower does not hold up to this inherent bias where I focus on instant pleasure.

Psychologically, we perceive the impact of an event – or the value of a reward – as dampened if it is further away in the future. This means we perceive a desired result in the future as less valuable than one in the present. This can also cause a disconnect from our future selves where we may perceive the positive consequences of completing a task successfully as happening to someone else, rather than a future version of ourselves.

When we’re procrastinating, we are choosing a positive activity in the present (such as watching cat videos or socialising) over a positive consequence later on – such as the satisfaction of completing a task or getting a good grade on an assignment. This normally also involves thinking about the negative consequence of procrastinating at the same time. This is also the reason why people might delay saving for retirement.

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


For the full article by Professor Pragya Agarwal visit the Conversation.


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