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In Search of the Arousal Procrastinator

You work better under pressure, do you?

Are sensation seekers procrastinators? Are they putting things off to get that last minute rush? The evidence is mixed, but they say that they are.

Kyle Simpson has just completed a thesis for his M.A. here at Carleton University. His research interest for the past number of years has been on sensation seeking, so when he approached me about a thesis topic, we built on this interest and background.

Essentially, we hypothesized that individuals who have an arousal-seeking personality - this includes personality "types" known as sensation seekers, extraverts and reducers (individuals who reduce incoming stimulation, even pain) - may procrastinate for arousal reasons. We reasoned that people with arousal-based personality traits, who seek out stimulation to be at their optimal level of arousal, may delay tasks to get that "rush" they need at the last minute to be at their optimal level of arousal. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to many of us to seek out the stress of a last-minute effort, existing research evidence demonstrates that individuals who have arousal-based traits (reducers, extraverts and sensation seekers) do seek out stimulating situations even if they are negative situations (e.g., watching a very upsetting video segment). They just want more stimulation.

For his thesis research, Kyle was in search of the arousal procrastinator.

This is not a new topic in procrastination research. Dr. Joseph Ferrari (DePaul University), a pioneer and prolific researcher, conducted research in 1992 where he analyzed two procrastination measures along with measures of sensation seeking and self-esteem (among others). He found that one of the measures of procrastination was related to sensation seeking and the other more to avoidance. On the basis of this study, he concluded that there was a measure of arousal procrastination. Kyle's research challenges this notion, but lends support overall to the idea that some people do BELIEVE that they procrastinate for sensation-seeking reasons.

Kyle's research
Using questionnaires, Kyle collected data from 311 undergraduate students. These data included the three arousal-based personality traits noted above (extraversion, sensation seeking and reducing-augmenting), as well as trait procrastination (how typical procrastination is of the individual), behavioral procrastination (how much they have engaged in procrastination behaviors recently), and a measure that included reasons for academic procrastination. In sum, his measures allowed him to explore how much arousal-based personality measures were related to procrastination and the participants' beliefs about why they procrastinated.

His analysis included a factor-analysis of the reasons for procrastination to identify how much particular reasons were endorsed by his participants. These factors of the reasons for procrastination included things like fear of failure and task aversiveness, but his real interest was in the factor that included items like, "I procrastinate to get the last-minute rush" or "I procrastinate because I work better under pressure." This was his "sensation-seeking" factor capturing the participants' beliefs about why they procrastinated on academic tasks.

His results
Kyle's research is very important for a number of reasons. First, he did not replicate the earlier research by Ferrari (1992). There does not seem to be an existing measure of procrastination that taps an arousal motive for task delay.

Second, none of the arousal-based personality traits correlated with the measures of procrastination. Scores on extraversion, sensation-seeking or the reducer index did not predict procrastination.

Third, when Kyle explored the reasons for procrastination in relation to arousal-based personality traits, he found that among those people who believed that they procrastinated to get that "last-minute" rush, scores on the arousal-based personality measures were slightly higher. Taken together, scores on the three personality measures only accounted for 5% of the variance in procrastination for this group. Much more is involved in predicting procrastination.

What this means: Is there an arousal procrastinator?
Kyle's' study has muddied the waters quite a bit in terms of our understanding of the motivation for procrastination. There's quite a bit of existing research that has been based on the assumption that at least one existing measure of procrastination taps "arousal" procrastination motives. This doesn't seem to be the case, as the scores on sensation-seeking didn't correlate with the procrastination measures, and the items for sensation-seeking and procrastination loaded on different factors.

Furthermore, given that arousal-based personality traits such as extraversion, sensation-seeking and "reducers" do seem to be related to seeking higher levels of stimulation to reach some optimal level, we would expect to see that these traits might also be related to procrastination, particularly for those people who score highly on these traits. This doesn't seem to be the case.

What does seem to be the case is that some people, a small subset of people who procrastinate, do endorse sensation-seeking beliefs about their procrastination. Kyle believes that this has less to do with a real need for optimal levels of stimulation and more to do with a rationalization for the cognitive dissonance people feel when their beliefs don't match their actions. In this case, people may believe they should be working on a task, but aren't working. The psychological tension created between the intention to work and not working needs to be resolved, and because starting work isn't going to happen, they rationalize their delay by adopting the "I work better under pressure" attitude.

The thing is, they may be half right. They're right in that they "only" work under pressure. They're wrong in assuming that they work better under pressure.

Although much further research needs to be done to tease out just how task performance is affected by the pressure (stimulation) of waiting until the last minute, the accumulated evidence to date suggests that performance is hampered by procrastination.

Concluding thoughts
"I work better under pressure" is a common mantra around campus. Students often justify the "all nighters" and last-minute efforts with the belief that they work better under pressure. As I noted above, I certainly believe that many of these students ONLY work under pressure, most likely because they lack any internal motivation for the task at hand so they need the compulsion of external time pressures to get them moving. They simply don't work from interest or in a "flow experience," they work because of external rewards or pressure. That said, our research using experience sampling methods, where we paged students throughout the week, has indicated that during the last-minute efforts few (if any) people spontaneously said things like, "Gee, I'm glad I waited to the last minute because I work better under pressure." This is something we heard during task avoidance earlier in the week, but not in the last minute-efforts to get the task done. In fact, we more often heard participants say things like, "This is actually really interesting. I wish I had started earlier on this because I could do a much better job."

The moral of the story returns to a common theme about self-deception and task delay. We often rationalize our current delay because we don't feel like working on the task by evoking (irrational) beliefs like, "I'll feel more like it tomorrow" or "I work better under pressure." Although this may be the case on rare occasions for some tasks, on the whole these thoughts are simply rationalizations to justify further delay and make us feel good in the short run.

Is there an arousal procrastinator? Much of the evidence suggests no, but certainly there are individual differences on how we manage our tasks, and we'll continue research in this area to discern who works best, when and why. Until we do understand this better, I would err on the side of caution and get started sooner than later. My answer is, as always - ignore the negative feelings of the moment (much of these are simply irrational anticipatory thoughts) - and, "just get started." ☺

Ferrari, J. R. (1992). Psychometric validation of two procrastination inventories for adults: Arousal and avoidance measures. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 14, 97-110

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