ETIOLOGY-THE CAUSES Of PROCRASTINATION

"The procrastinator is...someone who knows what (s)he wants to do, in some sense can do it, is trying to do it-yet doesn't do it."(Alston 1977 as cited by Silver & Sabini 1981)

Frequency

Procrastination is a stable trait and is related to temperament(Ferrari 1995). It is normally distributed as follows: 40% of people having experienced loss due to procrastination and just over 25% of people experiencing chronic debilitating procrastination (McCown & Roberts 1994). Procrastination tends to plateau in young adulthood i.e. the early twenties then decline until the sixties (McCown & Roberts 1994). Students in particular have high self reported instances of the disorder which interestingly seems to increase in higher education (Aitken1982).

Symptoms and Causes

Procrastination has cognitive, behavioral, and emotional components.

Behavioral

Procrastination can be viewed as a bad habit which has been reinforced. Students tend to avoid tasks which they find unpleasant (Solomon and Rothblum 1984) and engage in activities which are more rewarding, especially with short term over long term gain (McCown and Johnson 1991). It may be a way of avoiding and escaping responsibilities (Ferrari and Emmons in press as cited by Ferrari 1995) or the anxiety associated with studying (Solomon & Rothblum 1984). It is related to stress (Ferrari 1995). Behavioral therapy is often used to correct these maladaptive coping strategies.

Cognitive and Emotional

Procrastination results from cognitive distortions i.e. faulty thinking (Ellis and Knaus). This is often treated by cognitive therapy. Procrastination is unrelated to ability or intelligence (Rosati 1975). Procrastinators however, may have problems perceiving and estimating time (Aitken 1982). On Psychometric validation scales, procrastination was found to be related to 1) fear of failure and neuroticism and/or 2) a lack of conscientiousness or impulsiveness.

1) Procrastinators in the first category, often have perfectionist expectations and are overconscientious. They may display an irrational fear of success or failure which leads to neurotic avoidance. They may also be emotionally overwhelmed and anxious. They lack self efficacy, self esteem( Effert and Ferrari 1989) and are publically self-conscious and highly self critical. They have less need for cognitive complexity (Effert & Ferrari 1989). High procrastinators are more likely to attribute success to external and unstable factors (Rothblum & Solomon 1986). Often, they avoid diagnostic information (Ferrari 1991)and engage in exaggerated self handicapping(Ferrari 1991), because they are so sensitive to rejection(Burka and Yuen 1983).

2) On the other hand, impulsive procrastinators may fail to pick up cues from the environment (Ferrari and Emmons 1994). They may be unable to delay gratification of pleasure, have exaggerated sensation seeking patterns and a lack of self control. They may be antiauthoritarian and therefore avoid meeting external demands (Aronson and Gilbert 1963). Procrastinators may lack motivation for the achievement of their goals (Briordy 1980), energy or organizational abilities(Psych Reports 1991). These patterns of neuroticism and impulsivness are not mutually exclusive and a procrastinator can have symptoms of both behaviors.

The subconscious

Sometimes procrastination can signal profound internal conflicts (Birner 1993). A person can unconsciously delay actions and engage in the unproductive repetition of acts such as elaborate preparation rituals in order to avoid certain symbolized acts. Often the action involves a specific event or person. The act may be threatening to the person's ego. Specifically, the boss or the person who assigns the task reminds the procrastinator of a significant "other" person in their past. Often this may have resulted from conflict with an authoritarian parent figure who displayed ambivalence or over coerced the achievements of the child (Ferrari & Olivetti 1993). Childhood traumas (Van der Kolk 1987) and faulty child rearing practices from either too permissive or too authoritarian parents could be the cause of procrastination. Procrastinators it is postulated become hypersensitive to rejection and become apprehensive of evaluation from authority figures, which leads them to avoidance of task completion and stalling.

Procrastinators may be ambivalent about achievement itself, especially if task is associated with a rite of passage like a dissertation or examination. They fear success and the ultimate independence it may bring. It may also result from rebellion in order to delay acts of completion, due to conflicts with gender identification, psychosexual maturation or by reacting to the tasks of growth with delay and non-completion. These patterns are modeled from childhood into adulthood. Procrastination which is due to deeper chained causes may be treated effectively with Psycho dynamic therapy.

Further support for this view is found in elevated rates of procrastination among adult children of alcoholics (McCown, Carise & Johnson 1991), substance abusers (McCrown & Roberts 1994), incest survivors (McCown, Carise and Johnson 1991) and those who suffer from post-traumatic stress. These individuals seem to have difficulties following a project and are more impulsive (Jesse 1989,1993,1994). Procrastination may be a form of adaptive coping for them: a "learned helplessness". Dawdling may have rewarded the child with more attention. Perhaps procrastination could also be a shared ineffectual coping style, learning history or have a physiological genetic component.

Procrastinators often are resistant to change in order to maintain their defenses or a sense of control (Salizman 1979). Paradoxical or Confrontational interventions may be effective therapy for this syndrome.

Relation to other Disorders

Procrastination also has a complex relationship with other psychological disorders(Ferrari 1995). The A.P.A. Diagnostic and statistical manual relates it to different systems of diseases and it seems to play a different role in each type of disease. Although, it is not these syndromes per se that correlate with procrastination, but a synergetic combination of traits.

A) Ferrari feels that Schizophrenia and it's relatives are unrelated to procrastination(Ferrari 1995). Birner (1993) disagrees and feels that schizophrenics often cannot accept their own successes and therefore use rituals to delay progress.

B) Personality disorders are positively related to procrastination. Histrionic, narcissistic and borderline antisocial personality disorders are all correlated with procrastination. All these syndromes have a common variable of a lack of conscientiousness and impulsiveness.

C) Disorders which are characterized by anxiety or fear are strongly related to procrastination. The need for procrastinators to perfectly control their environment and for perfectionism is correlated with psycho pathology(Straus). In particular, Passive Personality disorders (or emotionally unstable personality disorder) uses procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, intentional inefficiency and forgetfulness (Birner 1993) as a covert way of expressing aggression. Oppositional Disorders are characterized by dependancy, lack of self confidence, pessimism about the future, resentment to authority figures and procrastination. Symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorders include the traits of indecisiveness, doubt, perfectionism and inflexibility all related to procrastination of decisional tasks(APA 1987). Phobias are perhaps the most directly related to procrastination and can result in task avoidance. However, often procrastinators have difficulty knowing what they are avoiding (Ferrari 1995). Neuroticism has a curvilinear relationship to procrastination. It may however be only a specific subtype of neurotic symptoms i.e. sensitivity to rejection that is related to procrastination(Ferrai 1995). Women in particular may suffer from anxiety which results in procrastination (Rothblum, Solomon & Marakami 1986).

D) Procrastination is also a risk factor for depression(Johnson 1992 as cited by Ferrari) and perhaps for other maladaptive behaviors.

Whether procrastination is a risk factor or symptom of these syndromes is hard to determine as most studies have been correlational so causality can't be determined. Procrastination may in fact be the beginning of a more serious disorder and can augment symptoms in vulnerable individuals. Often these patients put off treatment or have severe relapses. Procrastination can also result from neurological damage or deficiencies. However, procrastination is most importantly on it's own, a maladaptive coping syndrome which needs to be treated seriously.

References and Citations

Aitken(1982). A personality profile of the college student procrastinator, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

Birner, L. (1993). Procrastination: Its role in transference and countertransference. Psychoanalytic Review, 80, 541-558.

Briody, R. (1979). An exploratory study of procrastination. Dissertation Abstracts International, 41, 590.

Effert, B.R., & Ferrari, J. R. (1989). Decisional Procrastination: Examining Personality Correlates. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 4, 151-156.

Ellis, A. & Knaus, W. (1977). Overcoming Procrastination. Institute for Rational Living: New York.

Ferrari, J.R., Johnson, J.L., & McCown, W.G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance. New York, N.Y.: Plenum Press.

Ferrari, J. R., & Olivette, M. J. (1993). Perceptions of parental control and the development of indecision among late adolescent females. Adolescence, 28, 963-970.

Ferrari, J. R., & Emmons, R. A. (1994). Procrastination as revenge: Do people report using delays as a strategy for vengeance? Personality and Individual Differences, 17, 539-544.

Ferrari J.R. & Emmons, R.A.(In press).Methods of procrastination and their relation to self-control and self-reinforcement: An exploratory study. Journal of social behavior and Personality.

Johnson J. (1992). The ss-77. A measure of Psychological symptom severity. Princeton, N.J: Northshore Press.

McCown, W., Carise, D., & Johnson, J. (1991). Trait procrastination in self-described adult children of excessive drinkers: An exploratory study. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 147-151.

McCown, W., & Roberts, R. (1994). A study of academic and work-related dysfunctioning relevant to the college version of an indirect measure of impulsive behavior. Integra Technical Paper, 94-28, Radnor, PA: Integra, Inc.

Rosati,P.(1975).Procrastinators prefer P.S.I. A publication of the educational Research and methods division of the American Society for Engineering Education), 17-19,22.

Rothblum, E. D., Solomon, L. J., & Murakami, J. (1986). Affective, cognitive, and behavioral differences between high and low procrastinators. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 33, 387-394.

Salizman, L. (1979). Psychotherapy of the obsessional. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 33, 32-40.

Van de Kolk(1987).Psychological trauma. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association Press.

For More information:

To popular interventions, To study skills , To work related procrastination, To clinicalinterventions, To a taxonomy of clinical interventions, To a procedure for clinical interventions, To interventions page, To main procrastination group home page,