Wait today, act tomorrow

Scientists find potential genetic link between procrastination and impulsivity

Donald Wu

Scientists find potential genetic link between procrastination and impulsivity

By Max Green

Procrastination and impulsivity— two frustrating traits that plague many—have been thought to share a connection for some time now. Recent findings from the University of Colorado Boulder published April 4 in the journal Psychological Science suggest the primary link between the two characteristics may be genetic.

Researchers have long suspected a link between the two behaviors but have had a difficult time determining what factors might be responsible for their association.

“We knew the traits were linked but we didn’t know how much they were genetically linked in comparison to other influences,” said Daniel Gustavson, the lead author of the study and a graduate student of cognitive psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Gustavson said the researchers anticipated a genetic similarity but did not expect the overlap to be almost entirely genetic.

The research team collected and analyzed data from surveys related to procrastination and impulsive behaviors completed by 181 pairs of identical twins and 166 pairs of fraternal twins.

Researchers found that about half of the reported instances of procrastination were due to genetic influences and the other half were due to environmental influences. Gustavson said the surveys showed similar results when measuring impulsivity.

After analyzing the genetic influences on both traits, researchers concluded that there is a strong likelihood of inheriting both qualities because they rarely appear independently.

Benjamin Lahey, a professor of health studies at the University of Chicago, said he sees the two traits as aspects of conscientiousness.

“Some people are out of control,” Lahey said. “They do things on impulse—they don’t plan, they don’t get things done on time—that would be a person who’s very low in conscientiousness, whereas people who attend college and are successful and do well in their jobs tend to be high in conscientiousness,” Lahey said.

Lahey said though the study is well conducted and gives researchers a foundation for the claim that there is a genetic link between procrastination and impulsive behaviors, he is not sure it offers much practical value.

The research team wanted to test two related ideas, said Akira Miyake, senior author of the study and a professor in the Psychology and Neuroscience Department at the University of Colorado Boulder. Miyake said the first of these ideas was that impulsivity and procrastination might be related because both traits depend on how effectively people can use their aspirations to guide their behavior and goal management.

The second idea was that procrastination could be a byproduct of impulsive behavior, a theory that genetic data collected through the study’s participant surveys confirmed, Miyake said.

He said early humans may have adapted to situations in a way that resulted in the development of a tendency toward impulsivity.

“To some extent, we may have a genetic predisposition to being ‘in the moment,’” Gustavson said. “Impulsivity might have been a very useful trait for earlier humans who needed to satisfy [their] basic urges quickly. In fact, overthinking or overplanning could have been harmful [to them].”

According to Gustavson, the genetic link identified between these traits suggests that impulsive behaviors may have once been so crucial that it now results in procrastination—the inability to take the immediate steps required to accomplish goals.

It is difficult for researchers to imagine why procrastination would persist in an evolutionary sense unless it was related to impulsivity or was beneficial at one point in humans’ evolutionary history, Gustavson said.

These findings are the first to demonstrate that procrastination is not necessarily a learned behavior, said Kristin Jacobson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

“There’s [a] genetic overlap between the two, which is consistent with the idea that procrastination strategies evolve,” Jacobson said.

Aggressive impulsivity has been linked to serotonin—a chemical in the human brain that plays a part in mood regulation, Jacobson added.

Gustavson said that while human brains may be predisposed to procrastination, there are also other factors to consider.

According to Gustavson, setting goals and setting reminders could help people avert impulsive procastinating tendencies, not just those who may be genetically predisposed to procrastination.

“We’re not completely controlled by our genes,” Gustavson said. “We have a great amount of control over our environments and can combat [impulsive] procrastination.”