How much do they procrastinate in other countries?

A brief history of wasting time.
May 13 2008 3:57 PM

Procrastinators Without Borders

Do the Japanese waste more time than we do?

Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.

(Continued from Page 1)

Ferrari's findings also contradict a widely publicized meta-analysis by Canadian psychologist Piers Steel. That study looked at several hundred research papers on procrastination and concluded, among other things, that procrastination is on its way up in American culture, spreading its way through the populace like some kind of slacker virus. (In numerous interviews, Steel blamed this epidemic on computers, cell phones, and, most specifically, the game Minesweeper.) But Ferrari has seen no increased scores for procrastination among his U.S. subjects since he began doing research in the early '90s.

Ferrari does have his methodological quirks. He works with middle-aged subjects rather than students—because, in his words, "75 percent of students are chronic procrastinators." He also recruits many of his research subjects from the audiences of his lectures (on procrastination, no less) or from the firms that hire him as a workplace consultant. Drawing on data from this cohort, Ferrari has found significant cross-cultural differences within American society but not abroad. People in white-collar occupations procrastinate more than people in blue-collar jobs, corporate workers procrastinate more than professionals like doctors and lawyers, salesmen procrastinate more than managers, and salesmen in the Pacific Northwest procrastinate more than salesmen on the East Coast.

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It may be that the greater occupational diversity among Ferrari's subjects is swamping out more subtle differences. The cultural differences between social classes could have a more dramatic effect on procrastination scores than nation of origin. In a 2003 study called "Differential Incidence of Procrastination Between Blue- and White-Collar Workers," Ferrari and his co-author speculate that blue-collar workers might procrastinate as much as white-collar workers if given the chance, but their relative lack of job security and greater supervision were keeping them in a state of enforced timeliness.

We might get better answers from a study that looked at the actual behaviors associated with procrastination, rather than reported self-image. But, despite much effort, I could find only one paper that addressed similar questions without resorting to the questionnaire. Unfortunately, this study wasn't so much cross-cultural as cross-species. In 1998, at the same time that Leon Mann was studying collectivistic and individualistic undergraduates, a psychology professor named James E. Mazur was studying the procrastination habits of pigeons (PDF).

Mazur's test subjects were trained to peck illuminated keys at regular intervals, in exchange for a tiny wage in bird feed at the end of their workday. The wage was higher for the birds that worked most consistently and didn't take any breaks. In the end, pigeons turned out to be such layabouts that even a four-fold increase in food could not incite them to peck in a timely fashion. Pigeons aren't the only animals to procrastinate, either. Lab monkeys are known to become distracted when the prospect of a reward seems too far off. In 2004, a research team at the National Institute of Mental Health induced better work habits in a group of monkeys by temporarily knocking out a dopamine receptor gene.

Despite this evidence from the animal kingdom, Ferrari insists that procrastination as we know it has no biological basis. Steel disagrees, citing a study of identical twins in his meta-analysis as evidence that there is a gene for putting things off—but the study in question remains unpublished and has never been peer-reviewed.

Even if procrastination turns out to have a genetic component, Ferrari is right to point out that time-wasting in the real world is associated with power, social class, and group values. We don't yet know the details on how these factors interact, but a bit more research might provide a lot of insight. Come on, grad students—get to work!

Heather Smith (e-mail) is a writer living in San Francisco.

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