Is Procrastination a Personality Problem? What is Personality?

Procrastination and personality

Posted Apr 27, 2008

Does personality matter?

Is there a procrastination personality? 



The simple answers to the questions above are, yes and no, respectively. To understand why, we first have to consider what we mean by personality. So, I'll answer this question about personality and procrastination in a series of blog entries.

The thing with this blog is that I could just summarize the results of research here about personality and procrastination. However, I don't think it would mean a great deal without first understanding something about personality. I'm going to assume if you're reading this blog, you're interested in learning more, so here we go (the teacher side of me is happy ☺ ).

Today, I'll begin by discussing personality at its highest level. We'll simply define it and think about the implications of this definition for understanding how personality might affect procrastination.

I teach both undergraduate and graduate courses in personality psychology. The undergraduate class is a second-year, large lecture-based course. The graduate course is an intimate seminar setting. Although the undergrad class is an introductory survey and the grad seminar focuses on a careful reading of recent research for selected topics, students in both courses grapple with one common question - What is personality?

I'm telling you this, because it's tempting to think that definitions are only for beginners, too simple for serious consideration and your time here. I disagree. We need to think carefully about our definition and, most importantly, the assumptions in the definition.

Two of my favourite personality psychologists, leaders in the field and the authors of the text I use for my undergrad class, are Randy Larsen and David Buss. They are prolific researchers, and both have made significant contributions to the field. Randy Larsen is well known for his research with emotions (among other things). David Buss is most widely known for his work in evolutionary psychology, a topic near and dear to this blog space with Satoshi Kanazawa's writing.

Randy and David propose the following definition of personality in their text, "Personality is the set of psychological traits and mechanisms within the individual that are organized and relatively enduring and that influence his or her interactions with, and adaptations to, the intrapsychic, physical and social environments" (p. 4; 2008, emphasis added). I think it's an excellent place to begin any discussion of personality.

At its heart, personality is a set of psychological traits and mechanisms. We need to consider what these traits are first and perhaps how they're organized. Then we can turn to this notion of "mechanism" (e.g., coping). After that, we can also consider how enduring or "set in stone" personality is. All of this will add to our understanding of procrastination.

What traits?
This has been one of the key questions for personality psychologists who are interested in individual differences. What are the fundamental traits? How many are there?

Beginning with a presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1933 by Louis Thurstone and culminating in a flood of publications in the 1990's, the answer to the question of how many traits is: five. That is, the "big" five: Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience and Extraversion (CANOE - I'm Canadian, eh? It's a good way to remember them).

Ok, so there is still debate about this. There have been models proposing as few as 3 super-traits, others with as many as 16 fundamental individual differences, and a recent analysis has a focus on 6 (essentially adding an "honesty-humility" factor to the big five). The debate will continue in basic research of course, but we'll work with what we have.

Each of the five traits have sub-traits or facets. Basically, the 5 traits can be understood as a taxonomy of personality at the highest level. Other lower-order traits (facets) are components of these "super traits." The super traits provide bandwidth to understand major trends in personality. The facets or sub-traits provide higher fidelity as we try to tune into the finer aspects of personality and how it functions.

In some ways, you can consider these traits as the "color wheel" of personality. Although these are held to be universal traits, common in each of us and basic elements of human personality, how much of each trait we possess varies. The blend of these traits in each of us creates our individuality (as well as other factors, of course, related to the situation in our lives, culture, gender, cohort, etc. It's always an interaction of person and situation or nature and nurture!). This will make more sense as we begin to consider procrastination.

I'll end today by listing the facets or sub-traits of each of the five factors as proposed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae. This will help define each of these basic traits of our personalities.

After reading these, predict which traits and sub-traits (facets) you think would be related to procrastination. When I write again, I'll discuss which traits research demonstrates are associated with procrastination and what this means to us in terms of understanding our behavior.

The "Big Five" and their facets
For each major trait, I have listed the facet related to one "pole" of the trait. For example, extraversion has a extraversion and an introversion "pole" or opposite. In brackets after each facet is a descriptor term. More details about the Five-factor model can be found here.

Neuroticism vs. emotional stability
• Anxiety (tense)
• Angry hostility (irritable)
Depression (not contented)
• Self-consciousness (shy)
• Impulsive (moody)
• Vulnerability (not self-confident)

Extraversion vs. Introversion
• Gregariousness (sociable)
Assertiveness (forceful)
• Activity (energetic)
Excitement-seeking (adventurous)
• Positive emotions (enthusiastic)
• Warmth (outgoing)

Openness vs. closedness to experience
• Ideas (curious)
• Fantasy (imaginative)
• Aesthetics (artistic)
• Actions (wide interests)
• Feelings (excitable)
• Values (unconventional)

Agreeableness vs. antagonism
• Trust (forgiving)
• Straightforwardness (not demanding)
Altruism (warm)
• Compliance (not stubborn)
• Modesty (not show off)
• Tender-mindedness (sympathetic)

Conscientiousness vs. lack of direction
• Competence (efficient)
• Order (organized)
• Dutifulness (not careless)
• Achievement striving (thorough)
Self-discipline (not lazy)
• Deliberation (not impulsive)

So which traits and which of their facets do you think predict or are related to procrastination? I'll come back soon with a summary of the major research findings.