Opening Pandora's Box: The Procrastination Risk for "Optimistic Improvisers"

Are you an optimistic improviser or a neurotic planner?

Posted Apr 07, 2011

We make different types of intentions. We make prospective, future intentions with great detail based on "time travel" in our minds to that future time. We also make more immediate intentions. In terms of procrastination, understanding the risk of vaguely specifying when and how we'll achieve our future goal is very important.

I'm reading an excellent new book edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke University, Philosophy) and Lynn Nadel (University of Arizona, Psychology). It is entitled, Conscious Will and Responsibility  (2011, Oxford University Press).

The focus of the book is on the work of Benjamin Libet's neuroscientific studies and their implications for our understanding of free will. Although it's not the focus of my post today (and beyond the scope of a single blog post), I would like to note that this excellent volume reveals that premature conclusions that dismiss the notion of free will and the conscious control of behavior on the basis of the current neuroscientific evidence are unwarranted. For example, as Adina Roskies (Dartmouth College, Philosophy) writes in her contribution to the book, ". . . neither Libet's data nor the reasoning that follows strongly support the fairly radical claims about free will that many have supposed" (Roskies, 2011; p. 11). Or, as Walter Sinnott-Armstrong sums up in the concluding chapter, "If a conscious distal intention or plan causes an agent to develop a brain state that later causes a proximal intention along with the act, then it is not clear why the proximal intention needs to be conscious in order for the agent to be responsible for the planned act" (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2011, p. 242).

This latter quote that makes the distinction between conscious intentions far in advance of action (distal intentions) as opposed to intentions close to the action (proximal) is important to my post today. In fact, my focus is on Elisabeth Pacherie's (Institut Jean Nicod, Paris) and Patrick Haggard's (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London) chapter where they distinguish intentions that contribute to the final process of action initiation (proximal intentions that they label "immediate" intentions) as well the more anterior-decision processes that take place at the level of more distal, or what they call "prospective," intentions.

Ok, if you're still with me, all I'm saying is that this is a great book and what I'm focusing on today is on the nature of our prospective intentions, our plans for future action. I promise that I'll keep it simple from here on in, but if you're interested in this discussion of the nature of our intentions and this perennial debate about free will and determinism, you will enjoy the essays in the book.

Optimistic Improvisers
Pacherie and Haggard refer to people who plan future intentions to act in general or vague terms as "optimistic improvisers." These people make "what" decisions about "what they will do," but they don't think very much about how they will do it. And, although they probably specify this future, prospective intention in terms of a time-based "when-decision" like, "I'll do this task next Tuesday," they keep their options open in terms of specifying in which situation the action will be performed.

Neurotic Planners
They contrast these optimistic improvisers to "neurotic planners" who make extensive use of mental time travel to imaginatively combine and recombine possible situations and strategies for enacting their intentions. Drawing on episodic memories of relevant past events, they project themselves into the future to devise more concrete plans for action. These neurotic planners generate as much information as possible as early as possible. This is a front-loading strategy in terms of decision-making that leaves little need for later immediate intentions about how an action will be carried out.

So, we have these two "types" of planners. Which is better?

On the surface given the language, many of us might prefer to be called optimistic improvisers as opposed to neurotic planners. Who wants to be labeled "neurotic" with the implication that we needlessly worry and plan, when we could be considered a more free-spirited planner who leaves our options open?

Well, as with most individual differences, there are costs and benefits to both approaches. For example, the neurotic planners are well positioned to act when the situation arises. They have done their work up-front (that notion of "front-loading strategy"). They have not only specified "what" they will do, but also "when" and "how." This resembles a strategy I have discussed often in this blog, implementation intentions. As you may recall, this is a term coined by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer who notes that this pre-decision to do a particular action in a particular situation allows us to off-load our conscious thought later to a more unconscious process of responding to an external stimulus. This is really the main point captured in Sinnott-Armstrong's quote above. The conscious decision to act is planned such that later action is unconsciously "rolled out" at the appropriate time.

Of course, the potential peril of this early planning is that our anticipation of the future in our mental "time travel" as we made the prospective intention may not reflect the reality when the future arrives. As Pacherie and Haggard write,

"Early planning has its dangers. If the agent's anticipations were not correct, the external cues on which action initiation depends may fail to materialize. Or, worse perhaps, the cues may be present and automatically trigger the action when other unanticipated and unattended aspects of the situation make it unadvisable to pursue as planned" (p. 81).

(Blogger's note: Here is where other points made in this volume may be important to take into to consideration. For example, even Libet argued that we may still have "free won't" if we no longer have free will. So, rather than respond to the cue automatically and inappropriately, it is still possible, even taking Libet's research into account, that we can stop this behavior - we have, in fact, about 150 milliseconds on which to do this once we feel the urge to act, inappropriately.)

Key point for procrastination
The real potential problem as I see it is for the optimistic improviser. Because the specifics about exactly when to act and how are not pre-determined in a detailed prospective intention, we must retain more conscious (endogenous) control over the initiation of our action. As Pacherie and Haggard write,

"The late planner may be more flexible, but she risks unpreparedness when the time of acting comes. Having left it to the last moment to deliberate about means, when she finally does so she also risks reopening the Pandora's box of deliberation about ends. What-decisions and how-decisions aren't strictly compartmentalized. The costs and efforts involved in deliberating about how to A [carry out the "what"] under time pressure, may lead one to reconsider whether to A in the first place, when giving up A-ing may well tempt us as the less costly option" (p. 81, emphasis added).

Giving up acting is the risk here once we open up the Pandora's box of deliberation, again.

Of course, most of the time our planning strategies are a mixture of these two opposites. The authors conclude, "The skilled planner is the one who knows how best to take advantage of this flexibility" (p. 82).

What strategy we use depends on such things as the perceived predictability of the future circumstances and our knowledge of relevant past goals. Importantly, Pacherie and Haggard also note that which strategy we use is probably also influenced by our degree of motivation. This is one variable over which we have some control.

How motivated are you to increase the chances of success by making less anemic prospective intentions with a more deliberate attempt to plan for success?

Pacherie, E., & Haggard, P. (2011). What are intentions? In W. Sinnott-Armstrong & L. Nadel (Eds.), Conscious Will and Responsibility (pp. 70-84). New York: Oxford University Press.

Roskies, A.L. (2011). Why Libet's studies don't pose a threat to free will. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong & L. Nadel (Eds.), Conscious Will and Responsibility (pp. 11-22). New York: Oxford University Press.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2011). Lessons from Libet. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong & L. Nadel (Eds.), Conscious Will and Responsibility (pp. 235-246). New York: Oxford University Press.