Many of us procrastinate constantly. For example, my last “monthly” post was four months ago. The myriad costs of procrastination, to both individuals and organizations, have been documented extensively. But interesting new research by David Rosenbaum, Lanyun Gong, and Cory Potts suggests that there may be instances in which people engage in pre-crastination, which the authors define as “the tendency to complete, or at least begin, tasks as soon as possible, even at the expense of extra physical effort.”
In their forthcoming article in Psychological Science, the authors document this phenomenon through a series of experiments in which participants must choose which of two buckets to carry to the end of an alley. In most experiments, each bucket contained the same amount of weight—for example, seven pounds of pennies. Critically, though, one bucket was positioned closer to the participant (the “near bucket”), and the other farther from the participant and closer to the end of the alley (the “far bucket”). Since participants needed to make it to the end of the same alley regardless of which bucket they carried, one might expect them to choose to carry the far bucket, to minimize the total effort they had to exert, and delay when they would have to start exerting effort.
That wasn't the case.
The authors found that participants tended to select the near bucket—and the closer the near bucket was to them, the more likely they were to select it.
Why were participants so eager to work harder than they needed to?
Rosenbaum and colleagues propose that a top-of-mind goal “loads working memory,” and so by taking steps toward completing that goal we may ease this load—in this case, by crossing “pick up the bucket” off of our to-do list. There may be some truth to that, but the authors did not clearly document process evidence. They did ask participants why they chose the bucket they did— and “virtually all” reported that they just wanted to complete the task as soon as possible. Apparently, participants felt that getting started sooner would help them finish sooner (a normally reasonable heuristic that was misapplied in this situation).
I would also propose that, although carrying buckets down an alley may not be a great source of distress, this “new phenomenon” is quite consistent with prior work demonstrating that people will take steps to minimize the dread associated with looming burdens. For example, George Loewenstein famously demonstrated that people would pay more today to avoid enduring an electric shock in 10 years than to avoid enduring the same shock immediately. In other words, they would rather endure the painful shock immediately, instead of having to dread it for 10 years. Loewenstein’s study involved hypothetical shocks and hypothetical payments, but Gregory Berns and colleagues observed a similar pattern when investigating how people behaved when facing real electric shocks. In their study (which did receive IRB approval), participants chose between receiving shocks immediately or after a short delay. When the shocks were of an equal magnitude, most participants chose to receive the shock immediately. But even when the immediate shock was of a greater magnitude than the delayed shock, some participants (“extreme dreaders”) chose to endure the immediate shock. These are extreme examples, but if participants in the bucket studies likewise did not look forward to carrying the buckets, they may have minimized dread by picking one up as soon as possible.
While much research has examined how different types of goals influence goal pursuit (for example, aiming to run 11 miles per day vs. 330 miles per month), there is less research about how people spontaneously choose to pursue goals. Rosenbaum and colleagues offer a creative and provocative addition to this literature.
Whether the underlying psychology is more complex than dread-reduction is an open question.