Modeling procrastination: Asymmetric decisions to act between the present and the future

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2020 Feb;149(2):311-322. doi: 10.1037/xge0000643. Epub 2019 Jul 1.


Although procrastination has troubled people consistently, there is a lack of systematic theories to explain this behavior. The present study aims to propose and validate a temporal decision model to explain procrastination. The temporal decision model predicts that people will procrastinate on a task so long as the aversiveness of a task outweighs the utility of future incentive outcomes that this task can yield. Specifically, people perceive less aversiveness from a task when this task is scheduled in the future than in the present but expect that they can perceive higher utility from the incentive outcome in the future than in the present. Consequently, people are reluctant to do this task in the present but expect that they are willing to do it in the future (i.e., procrastination). We tested these predictions by measuring perceived task aversiveness, outcome utility, and decision for real-life tasks when the same tasks were scheduled with different delays. The results demonstrate that people expect that they would procrastinate a task as long as perceived task aversiveness is stronger than outcome utility and would stop procrastinating when perceived task aversiveness becomes comparable with outcome utility. Furthermore, people perceive less task aversiveness when the task is scheduled further away and expect that outcome utility would be higher when time gets closer to the delivery of outcome in the future. The present study explains procrastination by revealing how perceived aversiveness from a delayed task and expected outcome utility generate asymmetric decisions between the present and the future. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Procrastination / physiology*
  • Time