Evaluation threat and procrastination

September 26, 2010
By CMAC

PT

by Timothy A. Pychyl

No surprises here. High evaluation threat makes chronic procrastinators put off their work. The surprise in a recent study was that low threat conditions for people low in chronic procrastination resulted in delay as well. And, get this, the high procrastinators delayed the least if the evaluation threat was low.

A recent paper by Ngoc Bui (University of La Verne, California) presents an interesting challenge in terms of understanding the person by situation interaction related to procrastination.

Ngoc investigated the effects that social evaluation might have on procrastination behaviours, defined specifically as how many days it took to submit an assigned essay as part of her study. She manipulated social evaluation creating 3 levels of this variable: 1) high evaluation threat (participants were told that they may have to read their papers to an audience), 2) low evaluation threat (participants were told that their work may be printed for a public newsletter), and 3) no evaluation threat (participants were simply told to return their essays to the researcher).

In addition to this experimental manipulation, Ngoc measured the participants’ “trait” procrastination (an index of how chronic procrastination is in their lives or how typical it is of them). She then split the group into high and low trait procrastinators. This allowed her to explore how the trait might interact with the social evaluation threat explained above.

As you might guess, she hypothesized that those participants in the high evaluation threat group would procrastinate more than the low threat groups, and that the high trait (chronic) procrastinators would procrastinate more than those in the low procrastination group in all evaluation conditions. For those of you who like the language of research design, she expected main effects for threat and procrastination. What she found were two interaction effects. Behavioral delay (behavioral procrastination) depended on both the level of procrastination and the level of evaluation threat.

Just so you have the complete picture, let me explain a little bit more about her study. Ngoc took a relatively small sample of students and randomly assigned them into her three evaluation threat conditions. After they had been told about the essays they had to write and the potential use of the essays (the high, low or no threat condition, respectively), she then collected data on their procrastination. She thanked them for participating and told them that they had 15 days to submit their essay about the advantages and disadvantages of a private college education versus a public college education. They were asked to submit the essay to a designated mailbox on campus when they were done. She checked this box daily.

Overall, her interest was in the behavioral delay (behavioral procrastination as opposed to “trait” procrastination) on the return of the essays. Although her sample was small and not very representative of student populations generally (few men, imbalanced ethic group participation), and her method problematic in a few respects (all of which she acknowledges in her paper), her results are intriguing.

First finding:
For high trait procrastinators, those in the high-threat group delayed returning their essays significantly longer than did those in the low-threat group, 15.83 days vs. 9.92 days, respectively. Threat seems to affect the high trait procrastinators resulting in more delay. Not really that surprising if we assume that threat to self is a key aspect of procrastination (see the earlier blog about self-handicapping for an explanation of procrastination as a strategic approach to protecting self-esteem).

Second finding:
For the low trait procrastinators, those in the low evaluation threat condition delayed returning their essays significantly longer than did those in the high-trait procrastinators, 15.20 days vs. 9.92 days, respectively). This is a surprise. Why would low trait procrastinators delay with low evaluation threat?

What this might mean
Ngoc explains her finding like this: “It may be that the low trait procrastinators are only motivated to work when there is a significant threat of evaluation. Conversely, this same level of threat appears to impair the high trait procrastinators . . . Therefore, it is important for educators to know that different types of procrastinators respond differently to certain levels of evaluation threat” (p. 206).

My concluding thoughts
The most interesting result of this study for me was that the high trait procrastinators in the low threat condition had the fastest overall return time. This is truly intriguing. I would have expected the average fastest time to submission would be an attribute of the low procrastination group. As Ngoc notes, educators need to think about how people respond differently to different levels of evaluation threat.

For me, the message is clear. I can help trait procrastinators with more timely completion if I can keep the evaluation threat low. Certainly, we saw this message earlier from my colleague Joe Ferrari (DePaul University) whose research with Dianne Tice indicated that it may be possible to reduce task avoidance for chronic procrastinators by reducing the perceived threat of the task. This would involve re-labeling the task at hand to be less threatening.

In the end, for procrastinators, perceived threats can invoke avoidance. While we may wait for others to help us by reducing perceived threat, we can take more direct action by thinking about our own attributions and appraisals of the situation. Is it a threat or a challenge? What resources do I have at my disposal to cope with this situation? A little time for reflection will probably reveal that you’re very capable of moving ahead. You’ll be able to get started in no time!


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