Thursday, 8 October 2015

Psychologists study twins to learn more about the roots of procrastination

With so many digital distractions a mere mouse click away, procrastination is easier than ever. You want, nay need, to work on an important project, yet find yourself browsing Twitter, making coffee, checking email – basically anything other than doing what you should be doing. Daniel Gustavson and his colleagues – the authors of a new twin study of procrastination published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General – sum it up as "the irrational delay of an intended course of action".

Much has been written about why we fall prey to this habit in the moment (the all-important job is perceived as too challenging, the other tasks and distractions seem easier, and so on), but Gustavson and his colleagues wanted to learn more about why some of us are generally more prone to procrastination than others. Do we inherit a predisposition for procrastination in our genes, and what other mental abilities are related to the procrastination habit?

The researchers recruited 386 pairs of same-sex twins, 206 of whom were identical twins, meaning they have the same genes, and 179 were non-identical, meaning they share on average half their genes. After missing data were removed, the final sample included 401 women and 350 men (average age 23). The twins completed a questionnaire about their proclivity for procrastination (this involved rating their agreement with statements like "I am continually saying 'I'll do it tomorrow'"), and they answered questions about their proneness to "goal failures" (tested through questions like "Do you find you forget what you came to the shops to buy?").

The twins also completed several measures of their "executive function", including their powers of inhibition (e.g. one task involved resisting the reflex to glance at a square that appeared on-screen, and looking instead in the opposite direction), their ability to shift mind-sets (e.g. categorising shapes on a coloured background by their shape one minute, then by their colour, depending on changing task instructions), and their ability to juggle information in memory over short periods of time.

By comparing similarities in executive function performance, procrastination proneness and goal failures between identical and non-identical twins, the researchers were able to deduce how much of an influence genes have on these traits and abilities, and how much overlap there is in the genetic influence on the different measures. In simple terms, a higher correlation on a particular measure among identical twins compared with non-identical twins would indicate a greater role for genes.

Here are some of the key findings. The tendency to procrastinate was found to be partly inherited – 28 per cent of variability in this trait was explained by genetic influences (though note, this includes gene-environment interactions, such as a procrastinator choosing a job – like being a blog editor – that makes procrastination easier). Moreover, 17 per cent of the procrastination variability that was explained by genes overlapped with the genetic influences on goal failures – that is, many of the same genes influencing procrastination appear to play a role in the ability to manage goals. Also, environmental influences common to both procrastination and goal management explained a further 28 per cent of variation in procrastination.

The tendency to procrastinate also correlated with overall executive function ability – that is, people who said they procrastinated more tended to achieve an overall poorer score on the executive function tests. And again there was genetic overlap: many of the genetic influences on executive function were found to be the same as those shared by both procrastination and goal management.

There was one caveat in the association between procrastination proneness and executive function. Procrastinators actually tended to perform better on the ability to shift mind-sets, presumably because having a butterfly mind gives you a certain mental flexibility even though it makes it difficult to focus.

The findings help to pick apart the root causes of procrastination. At a genetic and behavioural level, they show that a tendency to procrastinate tends to go hand in hand with an ability to manage goals, and mostly a poorer ability to control one's own mind, in terms of inhibition and juggling information.

Gustavson and his team warned that identifying the actual genes involved in procrastination, executive function and goal management remains a long way of, and that many hundreds or thousands of gene variants are likely involved. They also cautioned that their study can't tell us about the causal relationships, if any, between the studied traits – it's tempting to assume that poor executive function or goal management causes procrastination, for example, but it's theoretically possible the influence could run the other way, both ways, and/or that other factors not studied here are more relevant, such as personality or intelligence. Nonetheless, the researchers did offer some brief practical advice on the back of their findings:
"Training subjects on how to set good goals may improve their ability to manage these goals and avoid procrastination ... Moreover, helping subjects retrieve their important long-term goals and use those goals to avoid getting side-tracked by short-term temptations (e.g. developing implementation intentions) might also be effective at reducing procrastination."

Gustavson, D., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J., & Friedman, N. (2015). Understanding the Cognitive and Genetic Underpinnings of Procrastination: Evidence for Shared Genetic Influences With Goal Management and Executive Function Abilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/xge0000110

--further reading--
The cure for procrastination? Forgive yourself!
Psychologists investigate a major, ignored reason for our lack of sleep - bedtime procrastination
Forgive yourself for relaxing in front of the TV and the couch time might actually do you some good

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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