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To do it now or later: The cognitive mechanisms and neural substrates underlying procrastination

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Procrastination, the voluntary and irrational delay of an intended course of action, has troubled individuals and society extensively. Various studies have been conducted to explain why people procrastinate and to explore the neural substrates of procrastination. First, research has identified many contributing factors to procrastination. Specifically, task aversiveness, future incentives, and time delay of these incentives have been confirmed as three prominent task characteristics that affect procrastination. On the other hand, self‐control and impulsivity have been identified as two most predictive traits of procrastination. After identifying contributing factors, two important theories proposed to explain procrastination by integrating these factors are reviewed. Specifically, an emotion‐regulation perspective regards procrastination as a form of self‐regulation failure that reflects giving priority to short‐term mood repair over achieving long‐term goals. However, temporal motivation theory explains why people's motivation to act increases when time approaches a deadline with time discounting effect. To further specify the cognitive mechanism underlying procrastination, this study proposes a novel theoretical model which clarifies how the motivation to act and the motivation to avoid vary differently when delaying a task, explaining why people decide not to act now but are willing to act in the future. Of note, few recent studies have investigated neural correlates of procrastination. Specifically, it was revealed that individual differences in procrastination are correlated with structural abnormalities and altered spontaneous metabolism in the parahippocampal cortex and the prefrontal cortex, which might contribute to procrastination through episodic future thinking or memory and emotion regulation, respectively. This article is categorized under: Economics > Individual Decision Making Psychology > Theory and Methods Psychology > Emotion and Motivation Psychology > Reasoning and Decision Making
Graph of a student's utility estimation for socializing versus writing an essay over the course of a semester (Reprinted with permission from Steel (). Copyright 2007 Psychological Bulletin)
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Prefrontal correlates of procrastination. (a) The increasing procrastination was corresponding to increasing spontaneous activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and decreasing activity in the anterior and lateral part of prefrontal cortex (alPFC) (Reprinted with permission from W. Zhang et al. (). Copyright 2016 Scientific Reports). (b) The gray matter volume (GMV) of a cluster in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) was negatively related to procrastination (Reprinted with permission from P. Liu and Feng (). Copyright 2017 Neuroscience)
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Parahippocampal correlates of procrastination. (a) The spontaneous metabolism in PHG was positively associated with procrastination (Reprinted with permission from W. Zhang et al. (). Copyright 2016 Scientific Reports). (b) The gray matter volume of a cluster in PHG was positively related to procrastination (Reprinted with permission from Hu et al. (). Copyright 2018 Brain and Cognition). (c) The effect of the gray matter volume of a cluster in PHG on procrastination can be mediated by FTP (Reprinted with permission from P. Liu and Feng (). Copyright 2018 Brain Imaging and Behavior). (d) The relationships between different mindsets and procrastination were mediated by distinct parahippocampal pathways (Reprinted with permission from C. Zhang, Ni, and Feng (). Copyright 2017 Behavioural Brain Research). FTP: future time perspective; GMV: gray matter volume; PHC: parahippocampal cortex; PHG: parahippocampal gyrus
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An example explains why people procrastinate. The real‐time utilities represent the utilities which people can perceive without delaying the task at each day as time moves towards deadline. The task‐delay aversiveness represents the task aversiveness which people can perceive at the present when delaying the task. The task‐delay outcome utility represents outcome utility that people expect to be at the day to which the task is delayed. The decision about whether to do a task or not at any time point depends on comparison between task aversiveness and outcome utility at the corresponding time point. People are reluctant to act unless the outcome utility is stronger than task aversiveness
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Psychology > Emotion and Motivation
Psychology > Theory and Methods
Economics > Individual Decision-Making
Psychology > Reasoning and Decision Making

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