Thursday, February 5, 2009

Construal Level and Procrastination

Here's a study that's got a bit of attention, including at The Economist, at intellectual vanities and at Psychology Today. The paper found that the degree to which a task was construed abstractly made a difference to the level of procrastination: more abstract meant more procrastination.

You can currently get the paper at website the first author (Sean M. McCrea) here.

This is the full abstract:
According to construal-level theory, events that are distant in time tend to be represented more abstractly than are events that are close in time. This mental association between level of abstractness and temporal distance is proposed to be a bidirectional relationship, such that level of representation of an event should also have effects on the time when the activity is performed. In the present studies, participants were asked to respond to a questionnaire via e-mail within 3 weeks. The questionnaire was designed to induce either an abstract or a concrete construal. Using a variety of manipulations of construal level, the studies supported the predictions of construal-level theory. Individuals were less likely to procrastinate performing the task when the questionnaire induced a more concrete construal. Furthermore, this effect did not depend on the attractiveness, importance, or perceived difficulty of the task.
Based on a body of previous research suggesting among other things that events in the distant future are more likely to be represented abstractly (and vice-versa), and that concrete construals lead to better task performance, the authors hypothesised that "forming a concrete representation of a task will reduce procrastination, independently of any effects of planning or understanding of the task."

There were three complementary experiments, all using subjects who were students at the University of Konstanz. In all cases students had a questionnaire (about various tasks) to complete and return by email. In all cases they rated the importance, difficulty, pleasantness, convenience and interest of the tasks In all cases the number of hours taken to return the questionnaire (there was a deadline) was recorded (there was also a coding system for 'early', 'on time', 'late' and 'not returned' for an additional analysis). Subjects were randomly assigned to the abstract or concrete condition in each experiment.

There were also some differences between the three experiments.

In experiment 1 the questionnaire itself included either abstract or concrete demands relating to the same generic tasks ("open a bank account"). The abstract condition required participants to describe "what characteristics are implied" by the activity, in the concrete condition the demand was to say something about how to go about the task.

Experiment 2 was much the same, except that the abstract task required providing categories ("A bird is a _______" while the concrete task required providing examples ("A bird is an example of a _______").

Experiment 3 was designed to address a risk that, despite the inclusion of difficulty and other ratings, any difference in return times in experiments 1 or 2 was related to something other than the abstract/concrete construals. Here all subjects completed the very same questionnaire, but half were primed concretely and half abstractly. The prime was a colour print of Seurat's 'La Parade' (detail from it here), with subjects either told something about the technique of pointillism (concrete) or the desired effect (abstract).

One way of looking at the bottom line of the results (there are several analyses in the paper) is to look at the response times for the three experiments:
Experiment 1:
Concrete: 175.78 hours
Abstract: 503.85 hours

Experiment 2:
Concrete: 301.76 hours
Abstract: 532.20 hours

Experiment 3:
Concrete: 338.75 hours
Abstract: 491.29 hours
As the authors note this is a significant addition to our understanding of procrastination. It's been known for some time that factors such as delay discounting are important for explaining procrastination, but this shows in addition that "the way the task is represented influences when individuals complete it."

This is important, and possibly useful. Maybe some of my mate Dave's more tardy grad students would find it helpful if they thought in more concrete terms about their overdue work ("write 500 decent words a day") instead of being distracted by hopeless tasks that happen to have vivid concrete descriptions ("read the whole internet"). Are you reading this, punks?

Finally, all discussion of procrastination should include a look at John Perry's fabulous essay on structured procrastination.
Sean M. McCrea, Nira Liberman, Yaacov Trope, Steven J. Sherman (2008). Construal Level and Procrastination Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1308-1314 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02240.x


Neuroskeptic said...

Did you make that picture yourself? :D

Doctor Spurt said...

Nope, but I did make it link to the place I took it from, which is Lifehacker:

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