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Teenagers, Identity Crises & Procrastination

On the benefits of knowing who you are.

What am I? Who am I? Not surprisingly, if you can't answer these questions, you're more likely to procrastinate. (Note: You can access the whole Carpe Diem cartoon strip at

Why identity and procrastination? The answer to this question revolves around the interconnection between identity and agency. So, I'll start by defining both terms, and then we'll come back to the procrastination part of the story.

Identity is that knowledge of who we are. Knowledge that is hard won through a real "exploration" of possible selves (perhaps those crazy teen years or campus life in your 20's) and finally crystallized with a "commitment." Sound familiar? It should. If you've taken any course in psychology, I'm sure you'll remember Erik Erikson, famous for his theory on social development, psychosocial crisis, and for coining the popular notion of "identity crisis." James Marcia built on this work in the mid-1960's developing the framework of exploration and commitment as the factors that might explain our identity achievement (or not as the case may be). Marcia created four identity statuses: 1) Achievement (exploration and commitment have occurred, most developmentally mature of the statuses), 2) Moratorium (continued exploration without commitment), 3) Foreclosure (commitment without exploration, perhaps by taking on parents' values/expectations), and 4) Diffusion (no tangible exploration or commitment, the least developmentally mature status).

Insightful students, and I've had the good fortune of working with many, are able to take a key theoretical concept like this and build on it. That's just what Matthew Shanahan did with this notion of identity and identity status. He figured that those people who hadn't achieved their identity yet would be more likely to procrastinate. However, when he first proposed the idea to me, he hadn't worked out exactly why. His original hypothesis was a hunch based on living with undergrads (go figure!). He needed to add the notion of agency and its connection to ego development, which he quickly did.

Agency is the belief that we are in control of our decisions and responsible for our outcomes. It means we make a difference, we make things happen, we're agentic, acting on the world. The thing is, being an active agent depends on ego development. It depends on identity.

Knowing who we are, also known as ego identity, allows us to interpret information about the world (known as ego-synthetic function) and execute an appropriate response (ego-executive function). These functions of the ego are considered essential for the capacity of agency, the ability to act to affect one's surroundings. And now we're getting closer to procrastination.

Matthew proposed that a link between identity and procrastination could be explained through agency and its necessary constituent, volition. The traditional conception of volition has been that it is an act of the will, or conation. From the Western perspective, control, responsibility and deliberate use of the will exist in necessary conjunction with each other. The link between volition and procrastination is made in the research literature especially with reference to action control. Specifically, research suggests that with regard to procrastination the ability to bridge the gap between intention and performance embodies volitional impairments in action control.

On the basis of this, Matthew hypothesized (most generally) that a less developed ego identity would be associated with higher levels of procrastination. As I've noted before in previous blogs where I summarize research, the details of the research design are not that important (if you're interested, you can read his recently published work [September, 2007] in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 901-911). I'll briefly summarize what he did and what he found.

Matthew collected data from undergraduate students (a perfect age group for the whole issue of identity development). The participants completed measures of their identity status and procrastination. Using regression analysis, he then examined which identity status predicted procrastination (hypothesizing, as noted above, that the "achieved identity" would predict procrastination negatively).

The results were as he expected. Ego identity development was negatively correlated with procrastination. That means, the more achieved the identity, the more the participants knew who they were, the lower their scores on the measures of procrastination.

Interestingly, the Achievement and Moratorium scores were oppositely related to procrastination. Moratorium (continued exploration without commitment) is considered only second to Achievement in level of ego identity development. These people are exploring, but have yet to commit. This lack of commitment may hamper their ability to translate the improved base of knowledge and understanding that exploration has conferred to practical, purposeful pursuit of goals in a timely fashion. For those who endorse Achievement status statements more strongly, the commitment they make may be analogous to a kind of pruning of their energies away from exploration towards only the most productive avenues of thinking and being that they have discovered. The results may be explained on the theoretical basis that exploration and commitment therefore work synergistically in contributing to a lower procrastination score. Viewed from the perspective of ego synthetic and executive functioning, it appears that both these components of agency working together are required to predict more timely task completion.

Well, that's a lot, but it's good, I think, to work through the concepts behind a knowledge claim. There's still lots to be done to really understand all of the relations and processes involved here, but the main idea seems clear, knowing who we are benefits us in terms of the purposeful pursuit of our goals. These two aspects of ego functioning, synthesis and executive control, serve to help us sort out our priorities and act on them effectively.

The moral may well be, we all have to "grow up" a bit to decrease our procrastination. Procrastination may be, in part, a developmental issue. I know many parents of teenagers will agree (and perhaps find some hope that procrastination may decrease as developmental issues of identity resolve).

(Blogger's Note: This study was Matthew's honours thesis at Carleton University. Not surprisingly, Matthew completed his M.A. and is now in a Ph.D. program with full scholarship support. Congratulations Matthew!)

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