Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

A Pro for Procrastination

Facing a tight deadline? Time to visit the bookstore!

When I was 19 years old, working as a night doorman at the Paramount Hotel in midtown Manhattan, business would slow down after 10 P.M., and I would pull out a book to read. My favorites at that time were popular-press books about psychology, and the most popular authors of the time included Erich Fromm (Escape From Freedom; The Art of Loving), B.F. Skinner (Science and Human Behavior), and Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man). To me, these authors were like rock stars, and I had a secret dream that someday I’d get to play in the same intellectual night club.

A decade later, I was an assistant professor at Montana State University, teaching courses in social psychology, personality, and sexual behavior. I had recently been turned on to an evolutionary perspective, and was simply shocked to discover that, although there were countless books on human sexuality and attraction between the sexes, none of them ever considered the evolutionary context of human mating. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, I would write a book called “The Science of Loving,” cleverly playing off Fromm’s popular title, but putting an evolutionary spin on it all. 

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But, alas, I procrastinated just a tiny bit, and never wrote that particular book. I wrote a couple of textbooks and a lot of scientific articles. But I still harbored the dream of writing a book of popular psychological science. 

Then yesterday, after a slight delay (of 33 years), I popped onto amazon.com and saw that my new book was officially announced as “in stock.” There it is, in radiant living color, with a mystery-invoking cover you can: “Click to LOOK INSIDE!” as well as lovely praise from writers I greatly admire, including Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Dan Gilbert, Dan Ariely, Noah Goldstein, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Bert Hölldobler, and Robert Sapolsky, and with, get this, a very cool video made by my brilliant and creative son (repaying me for his tuition to NYU’s film school).  (click here to check it out).

Click to LOOK INSIDE!

Given that I had always wanted to write a trade book, that I loved the process of actually writing it, and that I thought it turned out splendidly, though, it raises the question: Why did I procrastinate so long? Is there anything remotely redeeming about this level of dawdling? 

Well, although I really should have finished this blog yesterday, I instead went to digital “library” and checked out the literature on procrastination. There was a lot of it, and it mostly talked about how procrastination is linked to neurotic traits like poor impulse control, anxiety, self-handicapping, lack of self-efficacy, fear of failure AND fear of success. But there were a few papers suggesting that there might be occasional up-sides to dawdling. 

Some benefits of procrastination

In one study, Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister found that procrastinators experienced some short-term benefits— they were less anxious about their grades, for example.  But in the long run, the typical procrastinator paid the price —they got worse grades than their fellow students who were worrying about them. So we can’t really count that one for much in the benefits column.

Another study (by Schraw and colleagues) had somewhat better news. They reported that procrastination is sometimes linked to a state of “flow,” as when a student who has only ten hours to study for an upcoming exam buries himself completely in a textbook and puts aside all distractions. 

Several researchers distinguish between positive and negative forms of procrastination. For example, Chu and Choi distinguish passive procrastinators (who are simply unable to complete a task on time) from active procrastinators (who work best under pressure, and usually pull things off, James Bond-style, just as the train is about to run over the beautiful woman on the railroad tracks).  Steve Neuberg is my co-investigator on several grants, and he is fully aware that the government agencies doling out grant money have famously inflexible deadlines. Nevertheless, Neuberg’s favorite time to work on grants is the weekend before that ominous deadline is about to expire. And guess what, he always pulls it off, and absolutely amazes with the elegance of his final product (out of what looked like a hopeless jumble just the day before). I had a bit of this deadline-induced flow after I finally signed a contract to complete my new book. After thinking and thinking about the book for so long, I actually knocked most of the chapter drafts in just a few short months, holed up in my summer home in one of the most fluidic flow periods of my life. It was actually fun!

It also matters quite a bit what you do when you’re procrastinating. When I want to waste time, I don’t typically turn on the television, I instead head for the bookstore. I spent a lot of time in the bookstore during the many years I should have been writing my book. Sometimes I picked up popular science books about evolution and behavior, by great writers like Steven Pinker, John Alcock, and David Buss. But other times I went further afield, with a period during which I favored books on cognitive science, and another period devoted to reading about complex dynamical systems. As a consequence, the book I wrote isn’t just about evolution and sexual behavior, it’s about connecting the Very Big Ideas from evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and complexity theory. Indeed, the “Meaning of Life” in the title after “Sex and Murder” isn’t just an attempt to be clever, studying our simple selfish biases has in fact begun to yield big payoffs for understanding consumer behavior, economics, artistic creativity, inter-racial relations, and even religion. Oscar Wilde once said: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Ironically, being willing to look in the gutter has allowed us a clearer view of the stars.

There’s a second category of books I read when my goal is pure procrastination: autobiographies of people I’d never heard of before. Some of my favorite such distractions have come from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club, and Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir. From them, I got glimpses into corners of the world I’ve never been able to visit, and lessons for my own life that I couldn’t have learned otherwise. Besides that, my attraction to that kind of book led me to write my own book in a more personal way, describing the links between the scientific research and puzzling events in my own life, from minor irrationalities in economic decision-making to those homicidal fantasies and high school expulsions.

So, I honestly believe that I wrote a better book by spending all that time educating myself. But am I really recommending that kind of procrastination as a way of life? Nah. If I waited another decade, I might not have remembered all the lovely things I learned during all those trips to the bookstore, or I might not have been around to remember them. 

If you want to see whether my dawdling paid off, read an excerpt, see what other folks have to say, or check out one of the very cool videos, click here.  

Here's a direct link to a 3 min. video in which I talk about the book, and some of the personal confusions that led me to some fascinating research questions, and a few important insights: (oh, and it also features me playing guitar in the background, which will explain why some other career options were not available to me):

 

 

 

 

 

Some references on the pros and cons of procrastination:

Chu, A.H.C., & Choi, J.N. (2005). Rethinking procrastination: Positive effects of “active” procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance.  The Journal of Social Psychology, 145, 245-264.

Ferrari, J. R., & Tice, D. M. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in Personality, 34, 73-83.

Morales, R. A. (2010). Development of an academic procrastination scale. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, 19, 515-524.

Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., & Olafson, L. (2007).  Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99,12-25.

Steel, P. (2010). Arousal, avoidant and decisional procrastinators: Do they exist? Personality & Individual Differences, 48, 926-934. 

Tice, D., & Baumeister, R.F. (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science, 8, 454-458. 

 

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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