A new study out of Brock’s Developing Memory and Cognition Lab shows there may be more to those heartfelt requests from toddlers for “five more minutes” before heading to bed than researchers have previously understood.
Brock student researchers Taissa Fuke (MA ’22), Ege Kamber and Melissa Alunni (BA ’21), alongside Associate Professor Caitlin Mahy in the Department of Psychology, co-authored “The Emergence of Procrastination in Early Childhood: Relations With Executive Control and Future-Oriented Cognition,” which was published in Developmental Psychology last week.
The paper shows that not only does procrastination behaviour emerge as early as age three, but it also becomes more characteristic over time and appears to be linked with other future-thinking behaviours, such as delaying gratification.
One of the key distinctions drawn by the researchers is the difference between task avoidance and procrastination, which boils down to two important factors: a personal need to do something and an intention to do it — eventually.
“Task avoidance for adults may be as simple as staying away from a social event we don’t want to go to,” says Kamber, a Brock PhD student. “But in procrastination, we know we have to do this task, even if it’s undesirable, but we put it off.”
Mahy says determining intention, especially in children as young as three, can be challenging, so the team was careful to have parents report on tasks children intended on doing or had to do themselves, such as getting out of bed in the morning.
As a result, they detected an interesting pattern.
“The three- and four-year-olds procrastinated in different areas than the five- and six-year-olds,” Mahy says. “The younger children were much more likely to procrastinate on tidying up messes and engaging in bedtime or mealtime routines, whereas the older children were more likely to procrastinate on doing homework or doing chores around the house.”
Kamber, whose PhD research focuses on episodic future thinking, says the connection between procrastination and future-thinking behaviours, such as delaying gratification, has been of particular interest to him.
Using the example of the marshmallow test, where children are given a marshmallow and assured that if they don’t eat it right away, they can have a second marshmallow in 10 minutes, he explains how delayed gratification and procrastination involve similar forms of impulse control.
“You know you need to wait because the future outcome is better, but it’s also hard to wait, because it’s a marshmallow,” he says. “Delayed gratification is our ability is to inhibit our current impulses to focus on greater future outcomes, but with procrastination, we have to inhibit our impulse to not do the undesirable task in order to get it completed.”
The connection between procrastination and future-thinking is important because it involves “having empathy for your future self,” Mahy says.
“The thing about procrastination is that you get an instant reward of not vacuuming the carpet or not doing homework — you get to enjoy the current moment,” she says. “But the task that you will eventually have to do still hangs over your head and tends to create more anxiety over time — you’re effectively punishing your future self with the task and also the prolonged anxiety.”
The study was a true collaboration between Mahy and students working on three different degrees. It grew out of a conversation between Mahy, who was supervising then-Honours thesis student Alunni about how a thesis project on procrastination could fit in with the lab’s future-thinking research.
“Melissa was really interested in procrastination, and though I had never really thought about it in terms of our research program about future thinking, once she brought it forward, I could see a strong connection to how children think about the future and remember to do things in the future,” says Mahy. “It was also the middle of the pandemic, so I was at home spending a lot of time with my young children and I was really seeing a lot of procrastination behaviour, specifically around cleaning up messes, going to bed and brushing teeth.”