To the many reasons why people are chronically late filing their taxes, add another possibility: Blame their genes.
Procrastination, suggests a new study, is an evolved trait that probably served humans well in a time when finding food and fending off prey were job one, and time spent working on lofty goals for an indistinct future was sure to result in an early demise.
The inclination to defer unpleasant but necessary tasks appears to coexist intimately with the trait of impulsiveness.
After all, before complex societies made a virtue of such complicated tasks as timely tax preparation, completed homework and avoidance of fattening foods, bold initiative was a good thing. Acting on impulse was more likely to get one fed and spread one’s genetic material than was careful planning and an unwavering dedication to meeting deadlines and looking good at the next reunion.
It’s not surprising, then, that psychologists have long noted that impulsive people are highly likely to be procrastinators, and that procrastinators are very likely to be impulsive.
These days, acting on impulse is a behavior that has lost its evolutionary cachet. In a world with rolling deadlines and goals that demand complex planning, those who put off tasks can pay a high price for it.
Their credit scores suffer. They lose jobs and fail classes. They develop health problems and let them progress beyond the point of no return.
And yet, these traits survive — in some, very strongly. Try as they might, procrastinators tend to struggle throughout their lives with the impulse to put off the unpleasant and to lunge at more pleasurable pursuits instead.
That suggests that these once-adaptive traits must be enshrined in our genes, said a team of psychologists, neuroscientists and geneticists from the University of Colorado.
For a report published last week in the journal Psychological Science, the team set out to discover not only how much the tendency to procrastinate is determined by genetic inheritance, but whether procrastination and impulsiveness spring from the same genetic roots.
These days, it may be cheap and easy to sequence whole genomes, but it remains a distant dream to precisely locate the chunk of code in 3 billion DNA base pairs that results in a behavioral trait such as procrastination.
So the University of Colorado team explored the genetic underpinnings of procrastination the old-school way: by looking at twins, sifting through their likenesses and dissimilarities, and inferring the extent to which their shared and not-shared traits are the result of shared DNA.
Twins can serve as a sort of genetic Rosetta Stone because they share common genes, but to two different extents. Identical twins, which spring from a single embryo created by one egg and one sperm, are thought to share all of their DNA; they’re virtual clones of each other. Fraternal twins come from two separate embryos, created from two distinct sets of egg and sperm; they represent two separate rolls of the genetic dice. The overlap in these twins’ genetic programs will be much less than that for identical twins.
When a behavioral trait is shared 100 percent of the time by identical twins but less so by fraternal twins, it’s reasonable to conclude — and it’s possible to calculate statistically — that this trait springs from somewhere in the genetic code.
When identical and fraternal twins are equally likely to share (or not share) a trait, it’s a sure bet that environment and experience have shaped their behavior. (When identical twins have been separated at birth and raised in different environments yet share certain traits, researchers can confidently infer that those traits are genetically determined. Where the same twins differ, it’s a clear sign that their environments and experiences played the larger role.)
The latest research delved into the behavioral tendencies of 347 same-sex twin pairs — 181 of them identical (or monozygotic) and 166 fraternal (dizygotic). The average age of the twins was 22.
Participants in the ongoing twin study in Colorado were asked to rate their reliance on “external control” (such as deadlines), their tendency toward goal neglect (say, abandoned resolutions) and effort avoidance (Due date looming? How about a trip to Starbucks?). They were asked about their inclination to speak before thinking, their ability to resist temptations, and whether they had a penchant for doing things on the spur of the moment. And they were asked how often they experienced “goal failures” — forgetting to return a borrowed item or pass on messages, failing to notice road signs, leaving a chore unfinished.
Researchers found that in a broad population, genetic inheritance substantially influenced whether the average person would be a procrastinator, accounting for 46 percent of that probability. Genes were an even stronger driver of impulsivity, explaining the prevalence of impulsiveness in 49 percent of cases.
The genetic correlation between impulsiveness and procrastination was 100 percent — meaning that when a person is impulsive but not procrastinating (or procrastinating but not impulsive), only an environmental difference could explain the mismatch.
Specifically, the researchers found that impulsive people who had learned to keep their eyes on a distant prize — a diploma, a promotion, a size 6 dress — were more likely to resist the urge to procrastinate, suggesting “promising new ways to reduce procrastination.”