Procrastination: Blame It On My Genes
Biology is not destiny
Posted Apr 25, 2014
I’ve been fascinated by the media interest in a recent study published by colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Daniel Gustavson, Akira Miyake, John Hewitt and Naomi Friedman (Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and Institute for Behavioral Genetics) co-authored a paper entitled, “Genetic relations among procrastination, impulsivity, and goal-management ability: Implications for the evolutionary origin of procrastination” (full reference below).
When various journalists have contacted me, I got the impression from them that they thought that this study removed the mystery that surrounds the self-defeating habit of procrastination. The procrastination puzzle had been solved—it’s genetic! It’s part of our evolutionary history, and it can’t be helped. If we’re impulsive, we’re going to procrastinate. I’m not sure I would even wish for a world where this was true, but I can tell you that it’s not.
I don’t blame the media for this excitement. The study published by graduate student Daniel Gustavson, his supervisor Akira Miyake and their colleagues is important and interesting. As they note in their paper, “...to the best of our knowledge, this is the first twin study that reports the heritability of procrastination tendencies” (p. 8). As a first study in this area, it’s of obvious interest, and popular media thrives on over-statement to capture attention and the imagination, if not market share (my blog post title works the same way, doesn’t it?). The problem is the headlines and emphasis on the heritability of procrastination actually miss the point that the authors make about goal-management ability. However, before I explain the central role of goal-management ability, let me tell you about their study.
In a nutshell, this research is a classic twin study using 181 monozygotic (identical) and 166 dizygotic (fraternal) twins taken from the Colorado Longitudinal Twin Study (an ongoing study about which I know we’ll hear more). As the authors explain, the assumption in this behavioral genetic approach is that identical twins share 100 percent of their genes (alleles identical-by-descent) whereas fraternal twins share on average 50 percent of their alleles. Despite these genetic differences, each of these twin pairs share a common family environment. Given this, the key thing here is that the degree to which identical twins are more similar to each other than are fraternal twins provides information about the relative effects of genetic and environmental influences (p. 3). On the basis of this approach, it’s possible to calculate heritability coefficients that reflect how much of the variance in a particular trait (in this case procrastination and impulsivity) is related to genotypic variance. In other words, the results of this type of study reveal how heritable traits are.
This twin study revealed that what we measure phenotypically (observable) as procrastination has a substantial genetic contribution. Forty six percent of the variance in procrastination can be attributed to genetic variability. This is not surprising to me. This is about the same heritability for any of our major personality traits. For example, conscientiousness is what trait psychologists call one of our “big five” traits that make up the super traits of personality. If you’re conscientious, you’re planful, organized, and dutiful. Previous behavioral genetic studies have shown that this trait also has a heritability of about 50 percent. Interestingly, the correlation (phenotypic) between conscientiousness and procrastination is very high, so high in fact that some researchers consider it the “source” trait of procrastination. I digress a bit, but I’ll come back to this focus on conscientiousnes, and what I want you to understand at this point is that procrastination is influenced by our genes just about as much as any other of our traits.
The second thing that this study revealed was that the genetic variation that explains the variation in procrastination is the same genetic variation that accounts for the variability in impulsivity (the genetic correlation between procrastination and impulsivity was 1.0!). This indicates, the authors argue, that procrastination may be an evolutionary by-product of impulsivity.
The third and most important finding in this study was that the shared genetic variation between procrastination and impulsivity was also highly related to the genetic variation in goal-management ability. The authors put this most simply in the closing paragraph of their paper writing,
“. . . procrastinators are also impulsive in large part because they fail to manage goals effectively to guide their behaviors” (p. 9).
Notwithstanding that the correlations of behavioral genetic research really can’t be used to infer causation, this makes sense, doesn’t it? Impulsivity and procrastination are highly heritable traits, and impulsivity puts us at risk for procrastination particularly because these traits are associated with poor goal-management ability. In this study, the authors move from the genetics of impulsivity and procrastination—again showing that some of our key personality traits are highly heritable—to a focus on the real issue in understanding procrastination as a self-regulation failure...goal-management ability.
In a discussion of the implications of their study for future research, Gustavson and colleagues emphasize the need to “...better specify the nature of the goal-management ability shared between procrastination and impulsivity” (p. 8). They speculate that it may have something to do with self-regulation and executive functions, as these functions have been shown to be related to both procrastination and impulsivity. In fact, they emphasize that...
In light of the evidence that goal-management ability may be a central underlying problem for both procrastination and impulsivity, executive functions may also be predictive of individual differences in both of these traits, especially at the genetic level (p. 9).
I couldn’t agree more, and I’m confident that findings of future twin studies that include measures of executive function and conscientiousness will take the emphasis off of the risk factor of impulsivity alone in an understanding of the evolutionary etiology of procrastination. In fact, impulsivity can be seen as a failure of executive function, particularly a key function commonly labeled inhibition.
As with all complex behaviors, procrastination does not have a single causal factor such as impulsivity. There are both risk and resilience factors, each of which is partially explained by genetic variation. Of course, this nuanced answer is not such an appealing message for a media headline where we simply want to say “you inherited your procrastination!” We’re eager to read an article that explains our procrastination today as a by-product of human evolutionary history. Doesn’t it feel great to blame it our genes and evolutionary history? It’s only human after all.
Of course procrastination is only human. I agree. I also agree that impulsivity—“a bird in the hand”—may have paid off for our ancestors leading to a selection for this trait, but so did conscientiousness, that planful, organized approach to life. That’s why we see substantial heritability for this trait as well.
So, before you impulsively (pardon the pun) blame your genes and human evolutionary history for your procrastination and find yet another excuse for justifying needless, self-defeating delay, take a moment to put these new truth claims in the context of your other traits and abilities that show substantial genetic contributions. And, perhaps most importantly, remember that the genetic contributions amount to half of the variability in these traits. The rest is that “nature via nurture” dance where environment makes a great deal of difference. How will you nurture your goal-management ability and better inhibit that only too human desire to impulsively give in to feel good now?
Gustavson, D., Miyake, A., Hewitt, J., & Friedman, N. (2014). Genetic relations among procrastination, impulsivity, and goal-management ability: Implications for the evolutionary origin of procrastination. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614526260