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Why We Procrastinate

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Brain structures may explain this personality tendency.

People seem divided into two camps. Some people swear by expressions such as, “Never put off till tomorrow what can be done today.” But others will insist, “Procrastination pays.” We typically are a procrastinator by nature—or not—but why? Researchers at the Ruhr-University of Bochum, in Germany, think they have found a reason for this personality division, and that the answer may lie within two areas of the brain and how they relate to each other.

Ph.D. candidate Caroline Schlüter, who worked on the research, noted, “Even though the differences regarding our ability to control our actions affect our private and professional success as well as our mental and physical health to a considerable degree, their neural foundations haven’t as yet been sufficiently studied.”  

In the study, described in Psychological Science, researchers used MRI scans to examine the brains of 264 men and women. They also had the subjects fill out personality surveys that asked about action control; that is, how much they tended to tackle tasks directly, or how much they put them off. The scientists found a correlation between those with poor action control and larger amygdalas. Their brains also showed a less pronounced connection between the amygdala and a part of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

“Individuals with a higher amygdala volume may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action,” wrote one of the lead researchers, Erhan Genç, Ph.D., from the university’s Department of Biopsychology. The researchers theorize that as a result, this type of person will hesitate to act and will put things off. Additionally, “Due to a low functional connection between amygdala and dorsal ACC, this effect may be augmented, as interfering negative emotions and alternative actions might not be sufficiently regulated,” he wrote.

In the future, the researchers hope to discover whether training or possibly brain stimulation could change procrastination habits.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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