During the COVID-19 pandemic, Caitlin Mahy noticed that her young children dragged their feet when it came to cleaning up their messes, going to bed and brushing their teeth.
At around the same time, the Associate Professor of Psychology was guiding her then-Honours thesis student Melissa Alunni, who wanted to study procrastination.
Mahy’s expertise is in the way children think about the future, particularly how they ‘remember’ to do things they’re supposed to do, like brush their teeth at bedtime.
“When we started talking, we thought, oh, procrastination really fits into children thinking about the future and children’s self-control, which are two areas that my lab is very interested in,” says Mahy.
The proverbial lightbulb went off. Mahy and her Developing Memory and Cognition Lab embraced this new line of inquiry, creating a research plan that was eventually awarded the 2022 Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence (CCRE).
“Dr. Mahy and her team are breaking new ground by investigating the little-studied area of young children’s procrastination and how that relates to other areas such as memory development,” says Brock Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon.
Mahy has laid the groundwork for her CCRE research through a recent research paper in which she, Alunni (BA ’21) and student researchers Taissa Fuke (MA ’22) and Ege Kamber explored the topic of procrastination in early childhood.
Their study showed that procrastination, which the researchers define as being “the tendency to postpone undesirable but necessary tasks,” starts to appear in three-year-olds, increases over time, and is related to poor future thinking and self-control.
The researchers also found three- and four-year-olds tend to procrastinate on tidying up messes and follow routines during meals and at bedtime, whereas five- and six-year-olds delay doing homework or household chores.
Using the same data from that study, she and her team have written a second paper examining the role children’s personality as well as parenting styles and family socioeconomic factors such as parental education and family income have on children’s procrastination. That paper is currently under review, she says.
Key findings from that study include:
- Highly conscientious children procrastinate less.
- Children who experience many negative emotions procrastinate more.
- Procrastination occurs less frequently when parents involve children in family decision making and give children more control over their day-to-day lives.
- Children of higher socio-economic status tend to procrastinate less.
Mahy’s CCRE research plan involves three studies involving children ages three to six.
The first study will investigate whether acting in a timely manner, remembering, and complying with instructions or requests are separate, independent factors or if they represent a single, common ability, says Mahy.
The goal is to separate procrastination — delaying tasks that need to be done — from behaviours that involve avoiding the task altogether or forgetting that the task needs to be done.
The second study aims to develop ways to measure young children’s procrastination behaviours, she says.
The third study will determine whether children’s future thinking can be used to decrease procrastination rates. Mahy says children who imagine completing the boring task in the future might be more likely to decide to do it right away compared to children who are not asked to imagine how they will feel doing the boring task in the future.
“This CCRE research program will increase our knowledge of young children’s procrastination and how it differs from related activities, expand the ways in which we measure procrastination with the development of new child-appropriate behavioural tasks, and investigate future simulation as a strategy to reduce children’s procrastination behaviour,” says Mahy.
The Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence, open solely to Brock University tenured and tenure-track faculty, recognizes the excellent scholarship of Brock’s faculty members. Chair holders are active scholars nominated by their peers who have demonstrated excellence and who will continue to make significant contributions to the advancement of their field.
Recipients can undertake a specific three-year program of research leading to a significant development in their scholarship, including a scholarly monograph or a state-of-the-art review that might lead to a seminal series of scholarly lectures. Each awardee will give at least one public lecture on their research to the Brock community.