Procrastination An Evolutionary Byproduct Of Impulsivity
April 8, 2014

Study Finds Genetic Link Between Procrastination, Impulsiveness

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have identified a genetic link between procrastination and impulsivity, suggesting a similar evolutionary origin for these traits.

“Everyone procrastinates at least sometimes, but we wanted to explore why some people procrastinate more than others and why procrastinators seem more likely to make rash actions and act without thinking,” said study author Daniel Gustavson, a psychological scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a statement provided by the Association for Psychological Science.

“Answering why that’s the case would give us some interesting insights into what procrastination is, why it occurs, and how to minimize it.”

From an evolutionary standpoint, impulsivity makes sense – our ancestors certainly would have sought immediate rewards considering the level of danger and uncertainty they experienced. But procrastination would seem to make less sense, and may have emerged more recently in human history, the researchers said.

Many modern humans have multiple long-term goals we strive to achieve. However, when we are impulsive and easily distracted, we often procrastinate. Considering the two traits in that context, it seems reasonable that people who are habitual procrastinators would also be highly impulsive.

Indeed, many studies have observed this relationship, but it is still unclear what cognitive, biological, and environmental influences are behind the link.

The most effective way to understand the relationship between these traits is to study identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes and tend to show greater similarities in behavior than fraternal twins, who only share half of their genes. Researchers have often used this genetic discrepancy to determine the relative importance of genetic and environmental influences on particular behaviors, such as procrastination and impulsivity.

Gustavson and colleagues had 181 identical-twin pairs and 166 fraternal-twin pairs complete several surveys aimed at investigating their tendencies toward impulsivity and procrastination, along with their ability to set and maintain goals. They found that procrastination is indeed heritable, just like impulsivity. Furthermore, there seems to be a complete genetic overlap between procrastination and impulsivity – meaning there are no genetic influences that are unique to either trait alone.

The researchers said that finding suggests that, genetically speaking, procrastination is an evolutionary byproduct of impulsivity – one that likely shows itself more today than in the world of our ancestors.

The link between procrastination and impulsivity also overlapped genetically with the ability to manage goals, supporting the concept that delaying, making hasty decisions, and failing to achieve goals all originate from a shared genetic foundation.

Gustavson and colleagues Akira Miyake, John Hewitt, and Naomi Friedman are now studying how procrastination and impulsivity are related to higher-level cognitive abilities, and whether these same genetic influences are related to other aspects of human self-regulation.

“Learning more about the underpinnings of procrastination may help develop interventions to prevent it, and help us overcome our ingrained tendencies to get distracted and lose track of work,” Gustavson said.

The research was published April 4 in the journal Psychological Science.