Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

A Unified Framework for Addiction: Decision-Process Vulnerabilities and Procrastination

Addiction, decision-process vulnerabilities and procrastination

Based on a framework for addiction recently published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, philosopher Chrisoula Andreou has offered up ideas to consider in our understanding of procrastination.

I have written about Chrisoula Andreou's (University of Utah) work previously in relation to Intransitive Preference Structures and Second-Order Procrastination. Chrisoula has made significant theoretical contributions to our understanding of procrastination. Here I want to briefly summarize some of her most recent thinking and extend this with some alternative hypotheses.

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The new framework for understanding addiction
The target article for Chrisoula's response in the "Open Peer Commentary" was written by three colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis - A. David Redish (Department of Neuroscience), Steve Jensen (Graduate Program in Computer Science) and Adam Johnson (Graduate Program in Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Sciences). Redish and colleagues identify 10 key vulnerabilities in the decision-making process that can lead to maladaptive choice. Their framework has been described as a "tour de force" - a unified theory of decision-making in the mammalian brain as arising from multiple, interacting systems (including a planning system, a habit system, and a situation-recognition system). They write, "In this article, we have proposed a new framework for understanding addiction. This new framework provides a new definition of addiction itself as decisions made due to failure modes in the decision-making system" (p. 433).

They suggest that their "failures-in-decision-making framework" for understanding addiction can also contribute to improving our understanding of psychiatric disorders (p. 434). In fact, this is Chrisoula's starting point. She writes, "In the spirit of reflecting on the significance and scope of their research, I briefly develop the idea that their framework can also contribute to improving our understanding of the pervasive problem of procrastination" (p. 440).

Here's an outline of her ideas, followed by some of my own alternative hypotheses.

First, she addresses issues related to vulnerabilities in the planning system.

  1. Chrisoula begins with Vulnerability #9 in the Planning System (Over-fast discounting processes) by linking procrastination to problematic discounting - we discount the future utility of an action that sometimes prompts a preference reversal. In other words, actions that have rewards in the future are seen as less important, having less utility (even when they do not), and we end up preferring a short-term action with a closer (but smaller and specious) reward.
  2. She links here idea of intransitive preferences to the vulnerabilities in the decision-making process. Her classic example is the smoker who enjoys smoking but also values decent health. There is a desire to quit smoking, but it's always seen as one day from now (as certainly one more day won't be the ruin of the individual's health). You can get the details about this at my earlier summary of her work.
  3. She also links this new framework to fear of failure and procrastination, noting that fear of failure may also be a result of failure in the decision making process. For example, fear of failure could result from excessively, even obsessively, focusing on one possible outcome for a situation. (Clinicians refer to this as irrational thinking, whereas within this framework Chrisoula is linking it to specific vulnerabilities in the decision making process.)

She then speculates on vulnerabilities in the habit system.

Again drawing on her main theme of intransitive preference structures, she argues that if our intransitive preferences prompt us to repeat seemingly negligible but cumulatively destructive actions (e.g., smoking, eating trans fats, avoiding exercise), a habit-based vulnerability may be established on top of this planning vulnerability. This means, of course, that dealing with procrastination that is related to vulnerabilities in both the planning and habit systems will entail consciously changing our planning as well as "overhauling" our habits so that the new plans become second nature.

My comments and an alternative perspective
We can't be anything but impressed with the framework presented by Redish and his colleagues. It is what they intended, a unified theory of decision-making for the understanding of addiction.

Chrisoula's own perspective on procrastination with intransitive preference structures fits well within this explanatory model, as she too takes a strongly decision-making approach to her thinking. In fact, she begins her discussion of procrastination in relation to this framework by saying "the most established model of procrastination connects procrastination to problematic discounting processes" (p. 440). This is neither a simple assertion, nor completely accurate.

In fact, I disagree that this is the most established model. Although it is well documented that addicts discount faster than non-addicts and impulsivity is related to procrastination, a review of the psychological literature reveals that task aversiveness and "giving in to feel good" (the failure to self-regulate behavior in favor of immediate emotional repair) may be a more established and more parsimonious model of procrastination.

From my reading of this framework, I think that Vulnerability #8 may be a key problem with procrastination. Vulnerability 8 is the "Selective inhibition of the planning system." As Redish et al. write, "The habit system is inflexible, reacts quickly, ‘without thinking,' whereas the planning system is highly flexible and allows the consideration of possibilities" (p. 425). I think it would be worth investigating to what extent "giving in to feel good" is a habit for chronic procrastinators creating a situation where the planning system is inhibited while the individual simply reacts to negative emotions generated by an aversive task with an action to make them feel better. Their habit is to do emotional repair when they face tasks that they don't enjoy. It's not that individuals are discounting the utility of an intended action that then leads to procrastination, they don't even get there! This whole planning system is inhibited by the habitual response of "giving in to feel good." Of course, this habit undermines action towards longer-term goals that the planning system might make possible, a key problem with procrastination.

In the end, all of this speculation awaits further research. Redish and colleagues recognize the many incomplete aspects of their framework, and acknowledge that the decision-making framework lays out a research paradigm. They end their paper with a long list of future studies, possible alternative variables and processes to consider. This is the nature of science. I'm sure we'll see a great deal more research exploring addiction, self-regulatory failure, and the everyday, pervasive problem of procrastination discussed in these terms in the future.

References
Andreou, C. (2008). Addiction, procrastination and failure points in decision-making systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 439 - 440.

Redish, A.D., Jensen, S., & Johnson, A. (2008). A unified framework for addiction: Vulnerabilities in the decision process. A 415 - 487.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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