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Intransitive Preference Structures: The Procrastination Trap

The irrationality of procrastination

Moment-to-moment rational decisions can lead to and sustain procrastination (and many other problems like addiction). The theory of intransitive preferences explains both our seemingly irrational delay of desired long-term goals in preference for an immediate reward as well as our regret later.

All of this underscores the problem of existence that lies at the heart of procrastination - our self-deception.

Chrisoula Andreou, a philosopher at the University of Utah, recently made a contribution to the literature on procrastination in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour (Volume 37, 183-193). Her work builds on something I described earlier with temporal discounting (see the blog entry Temporal Motivation Theory: Formula or Folly). Andreou moves beyond the discounting-induced preference reversal that is explained by temporal discounting theory, introducing a theory which explains why we end up regretting the rational decisions that we made while putting off a task to the last minute.

I find this theory compelling as a description of how our thinking gets us into trouble. I think you will recognize this pattern in your own life quite quickly. Andreou's contribution is to make the sequence of our choices explicit. She explains how we can make a series of choices that are preferable at each moment, only to later regret that we didn't start earlier. Essentially, what she argues is that our preferences can be intransitive.

Transitive preferences we understand best. For example, if among three things, A, B & C, I prefer B over A and C over B, the preferences are transitive if I also prefer C over A. In the case of intransitive preferences, this last condition is not satisfied. Does this make sense? It does in many case, particularly in the case of procrastination.

Let's look at it over time as diagramed in the loop above or in the line below. Note that the "<" is to be read as "is less preferred than."

Acting a time period 1 < acting a time period 2 < acting at time period 3 < acting at time period n < acting at time period 1 (oops, I wish I had started earlier!)

As an example, imagine it's Monday and you have a report due on Thursday. The intransitive preference would be that:

"Acting on Monday would be less preferable to acting on Tuesday ("I'll feel more like it tomorrow"), which would be less preferable to acting on Wednesday which would be less preferable to acting on Thursday, which would be less preferable to acting on the previous Monday" (because we're now too late to get the report done!). This is a common feeling among procrastinators as they make that last-minute effort in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

In this sense, Andreou's intransitive preference loop explains our daily, or moment-to-moment choices, to delay as the procrastinator's dilemma. In addition, Andreou explains how this applies to many aspects of our lives such as smoking while desiring to quit because we know that it is bad for our health. As she explains it, no individual instance of smoking will actually be responsible for making you ill, so someone in the position of deciding whether to have a smoke at any given moment can rationally say that this cigarette won't harm his or her health. As with the procrastination issue, but with potentially much more devastating consequences, we know how this can play itself out as the cumulative effects of these decisions can truly be fatal.

Why all of this is still a problem of existence
As, Andreou notes at the end of her paper, ". . . understanding procrastination (including both its voluntary and self-defeating aspects) is a philosophically challenging task." I agree, and I think to take this further we have to return to the existentialist perspective to understand what is happening with the intransitive preference loops. It's really all part of what Sartre referred to as "bad faith." We are engaged in these minor self-deceptions from moment to moment as we try to escape the freedom of real choice about what we should do at this moment. (Here again, it won't surprise you, that I'm rejecting the notion of "utility" as the explanation, or some notion of a truly rationale decision that this task can really wait, in favor of the issue of being responsible for choosing wisely given our apparent identity as projected in our goals.)

Although Andreou does not take this perspective in her paper, her suggested intervention strategy for procrastinators reveals that the problem of procrastination is, at heart, a matter of freedom. She recommends that procrastinators need support to take the timely decisions they desire. What they need, Andreou contends, are "creative commitment devices." For example, the individual whose long-term goal is to save for retirement, but who always chooses the short-term reward of spending now over the long-term goal of saving, would benefit from a structure of automatic deposits to savings taken directly from monthly pay cheques. Voila! The individual has escaped the freedom of choice on a monthly basis. Only one choice need be made, as the "commitment device" of automatic deposits does the rest. It doesn't matter if you don't "feel like it this month," it's automatic - no choice.

Certainly, this example of saving money, one that Andreou uses in his article, makes sense. It would certainly help to have a direct deposit "creative commitment device." There are at least a couple of problems for the procrastinator, however.

1. I can just about guarantee that the procrastinator would end up in an intransitive loop about setting up the automatic withdrawals (readers who are chronic procrastinators caught this one immediately, I'm sure).

2. Many problems with procrastination don't lend themselves easily to "creative commitment devices." Another example provided by Andreou of establishing early imposed deadlines with penalties only shifts the intransitive preference structure, it doesn't eliminate it. In any case, I would still expect procrastination on setting up these deadlines.

I think the real issue for procrastinators is to deal directly with their self-deception. Why? Well, even Andreou recognizes that "being aware of the challenging structure of one's situation will not necessarily dissolve the challenge." In her 10th endnote to her paper, Andreou writes what I think is one of the most important points.

"Notice that being aware of the challenging structure of one's situation will not necessarily dissolve the challenge. More specifically, one can be aware that constantly indulging is incompatible with achieving one's long-term goal of showing restraint while finding it difficult to draw the line and stop indulging now. For one may also recognize [I would say "believe"] that the effects of one more indulgence are negligible. So (giving in to) the temptation to indulge for just a little longer need not imply a lack of awareness concerning one's situation. Of course, if one is not naïve, then one will recognize and perhaps worry about the fact that one will be similarly tempted in the future; but this recognition will not necessarily motivate one to draw the line and stop indulging now." [Emphasis and comment added]

Why won't we stop indulging now if we have this awareness? Why will we worry? Answers to both of these questions may be found in the existentialist notion of bad faith. We are always well aware that we are deceiving self. Consciousness assures this. So, in this sense, our worry is the anguish of freedom that we are trying to escape, and we won't stop indulging now, as to do so would mean that we have to face our self-deception now. That would be too much, and the procrastinator's problem is that he or she is simply not willing to face such ownership of life, of choice.

The rationalization of the moment's temptation is the procrastinator's mode of being in the world, never facing the freedom that is inherent to make his or her choice now as a true agent. It's much easier to almost unconsciously indulge in the immediate, inconsequential pleasure as if we're not really in charge of our lives at all. This is certainly why Andreou finds a connection with Maury Silver's and John Sabini's insight that we usually succumb to "ephemeral pleasures" as we really don't need to choose at all, as we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking that we're not significantly hampering our chances of achieving our "real" goals (for more about these ephermeral pleasures, see my blog on Internet procrastination).

It is a simple truth that intransitive preference structures lie at the heart of our decision making with procrastination. In my opinion, Andreou fulfilled her wish to make a contribution to our understanding of procrastination by making this process explicit and labeling it clearly. For me, the issue is why do procrastinators set the preference reversal in this loop so late? It is certainly reasonable, using the example above, to prefer Tuesday over Monday and maybe even Wednesday over Tuesday depending on the nature of the task, but at some point the problem rests on where that intransitive reversal appears. Are procrastinators "broken" somehow cognitively? Are they different because they can't see the folly here?

Why is it that some of us, those we casually (but problematically) label "procrastinators" truly leave things so late in this loop that we suffer as a result? This is the stable individual difference for which we must develop an account. Procrastination is not simply delay, it is the irrational delay of an intended action.

To address this individual difference, I have returned to the problem of our existence, and I suggest that our momentary indulgences serve as potent, acceptable means of self-deception. This self-deception is itself a means to try and escape the responsibility of choosing. Of course, given that we cannot escape our consciousness, cannot truly deceive self as we might another person, we live with the guilt of our "bad faith" and the anxiety of our inescapable freedom.

Closing thoughts . . .
At any given moment when we "don't feel like doing something" and we think "surely this can wait a little longer" we're engaging in self-deception IF WE HAD ORIGINALLY MADE AN INTENTION TO ACT AT THIS TIME BECAUSE WE HAD DECIDED THIS WAS THE BEST TIME TO ACT. This is the heart of procrastination, the gap we create between intention and action. Certainly, if we had no intention to act and we accurately assess that something can wait another day, we have simply delayed our action. This is not procrastination. It is delay. Delay can be very wise. Procrastination is the irrational delay that results from making an intention but then needlessly delaying acting on it (accompanied by the self-deception I spoke of above).

At the risk of over-simplifying here and yet at the same time expressing what I believe is at the heart of the matter philosophically and practically for the procrastinator, carpe diem!

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