Is pre-crastination, like its namesake, “procrastination,” another example of suboptimal, some might say, self-defeating, choice? In a recent series of studies, researchers posed a simple question: "Would people naturally prefer to pick up an object that could be carried a short distance rather than an object that would have to be carried a long distance?"
The answer will surprise you.
A recent study published in Psychological Science by David A. Rosenbaum, Lanyun Gong and Cory Adam Potts (Pennsylvania State University) caught my attention. In a series of nine clever experiments they explored a simple matter of choice. The choice revolved around picking up one of two plastic beach pails to achieve the experimental goal set for each participant. Participants simply had to walk down a relatively narrow (three feet) and short alley (16 feet) and while doing so pick up one of two beach pails/buckets and deliver it to the end of the alley. In fact, these were the exact instructions as reported in the article, “Participants were asked to walk down the alley without stopping and to do whatever seemed easier—pick up and carry the left bucket to the far left platform with the left hand, or pick up and carry the right bucket to the far right platform with the right hand” (p. 2).
What the experimenters varied across their experiments was where the buckets were in relation to the participants’ starting position (one closer than the other to the start, but then further from the goal), and in some cases they varied the weight of the buckets (from an empty plastic bucket to one filled with 7 pounds of pennies). The researchers took into account handedness (90% of their participants were right handed) by balancing the distribution of right and left choices appropriately.
The researchers reasoned that we would prefer the easier task, because that is what the participants were asked to do - “do whatever seemed easier.” Surprisingly, as the authors explain, “The results of Experiments 1 through 8 indicated that participants cared more about picking up the bucket that had the shorter approach distance than they did about the physical effort associated with carrying the buckets to the targets” (p. 6).
They labeled this surprisingly irrational or sub-optimal choice pre-crastination. I have more to say about this in my closing comments, but suffice it to say here that they believe this is a good word to be the opposite of procrastination. They write, “We define pre-crastination as the tendency to complete, or at least begin, tasks as soon as possible, even at the expense of extra physical effort" (p. 1).
There were some moderating factors on this effect as they revealed best in their final experiment where they varied not only proximity but also weight and whether the heavy bucket was on the left or right. In summing up this final experiment they note that, “The pre-crastination effect, as reflected by a preference for the close bucket, was eliminated when the heavy bucket was on the right but not when it was on the left. Participants therefore made their choices on the basis of weight, proximity, and laterality” (p. 7).
Strange, isn’t it? As the authors reasoned, doesn’t it make more sense that we (as reflected by the participants in the study, undergrads who were doing an odd experiment for course credit) would choose to delay picking up a bucket – delay work - by choosing the bucket closer to the goal, and thereby do less work?
When they asked their participants, they said it was because they “wanted to get the task done sooner.” Maybe, but asking participants why they do things has its limits. As psychologists have argued since the 1970s, sometimes we can tell more than we can really know. We can say we have reasons, but they may not be what’s really affecting our behavior.
The researchers have a different take on this. They close the paper by explaining, “...we can say that holding a goal in mind loads working memory and that, if there is a way to reduce that working memory load, people will do so. The urge to reduce the working memory load may be so great that people are willing to expend extra physical effort” (p. 9).
This may be so, and it’s a good plausible explanation when we think about the results of the experiment in relation to more general knowledge from psychological research (which the authors do), but their experiments in particular don’t demonstrate this. It’s just a good best bet.
I have a different take on their research. It is interesting that participants in this study made the choices they did. Why not walk a few less paces without a bucket, whatever the weight? Then again, it is just a few paces. I wonder how much more “rational” we might become if we were talking about significant loads and more significant distances (e.g., a heavy pack versus a light one over a few miles or so). I doubt so much we’d hear participants say things like “I just wanted to get the task done sooner” that’s for sure. In fact, I’d imagine we might hear, “I’ll feel more like this tomorrow,” or “I work better under pressure” (waiting closer to a deadline to act). Pre-crastination then? I think not. Even if we accept pre-crastination as an opposite of procrastination (before belonging to tomorrow as opposed to putting forward to tomorrow, as the Latin equivalents may be phrased, respectively), I’m not convinced that this is what these studies demonstrate.
The implication that what they observed in this study is the opposite of procrastination is just muddled. The authors might have clarified this by showing how procrastination and working memory might be related, but they don’t. Certainly, we might make a case for this with the links already established between executive function and procrastination, but that’s not what the authors have done here. They simply argue that the desire to get closer to goal by completing a subgoal happens some times.
Given the nature of their experiment, it would seem the best conclusion to reach is that we’re more likely to pre-crastinate when the goals don’t mean very much and aren’t very hard. Sign me up for some of those goals, please! I'll get them done quickly, as I'm sure I'll pre-crastinate on those goals while I procrastinate on the more important, challenging goals in my life.
Rosenbaum, D.A., Gong, L. & Potts, C.A. (2014). Pre-Crastination: Hastening Subgoal Completion at the Expense of Extra Physical Effort, Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614532657