Negative outlook linked to procrastination

Self-control conflicts are a part of everyday experience. We all know the feeling of struggling to reign in impulses that clash with our long-term goals, such as reaching for a second slice of cake when we are aiming to reduce the bulge at the waist, or postponing an inconvenient or tiring task that we know has to be completed.

New research now suggests that our attitude towards life could be a determining factor when it comes to giving in or resisting an impulse. The study found that people whose negative attitudes tend to dictate their behavior in many situations are more likely to give in to their impulse such as delaying a task at hand.

Psychologists describe the mental process that people go through when confronted by a new circumstance to draw more strongly on their positive or negative attitude as ‘valence weighing bias’. In other words, whether negative or positive internal ‘signals’ carry the most weight will guide our final behavior.

In a series of studies, researchers at the Ohio State University in the United States, found links between a more negative-leaning attitude and procrastination. They also found it is possible to shift the weighting bias of strong procrastinators toward neutrality and reverse their tendency to delay a task.

In the first of three studies conducted by the researchers, they tested a real-world scenario — preparing the annual federal tax return. The study sampled 232 participants who reported whether they routinely filed returns early or late during tax season.

When faced with the prospect of filing their annual tax returns, people tend to ask themselves whether they want to do this now. The positive signal would be, I have to get it done and the sooner the better. The negative response could be, I certainly do not want to do this now. It is an onerous task.

With data from the participants in hand, the researchers used a tool to gauge the extent to which participants weighed positive or negative signals more strongly when encountering something new. Their analysis showed an association between a more negative weighting bias and a delay in submitting a tax return. In other words, people whose negative attitudes generalize more strongly tended to engage in unnecessary task delay to a greater extent,

The second study involved 147 college students in a program allowing them to accumulate course credit in exchange for participating in research. In addition to gauging the valence weighting bias of students, the study also explored whether measures of self-control influenced task-related behavior of the students.

Results showed the combination of negative weighting bias and self-reported low motivation or emotional energy for effective self-control was linked to students putting off research program participation by getting started later in the semester.

Explaining their two studies, the researchers said that while the first study established the basic effect of negative weighting bias, the second study provided more nuance to their research.

Study three was designed to look for a causal effect of valence weighting bias in completing or delaying a task. Students in the research-for-credit program who were self-reported procrastinators and who scored high for negative weighting bias were recruited for the study. Researchers then manipulated the valence weighting bias tool for one group in a way that led participants to weigh positive and negative signals in a more balanced way. This shift toward neutrality changed students’ behavior: They accumulated credit hours more quickly than the control group, whose negative weighting bias and low self-control reliably predicted their delay in securing extra credit.

Negative weighting bias could also have a positive effect on behavior. The researchers found evidence that a negative weighting bias may help people be more realistic when they are asking themselves, for example, “Have I studied enough for this test?” A positive weighting bias may lead people to convince themselves they are ready when in fact they are not. The study established that it is better to be more objectively balanced than to be at either extreme.

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