Attitude Bias at Procrastination’s Root

Summary: New research delves into how valence weighting bias—people’s tendency to prioritize negative or positive attitudes—plays a crucial role in procrastination. By studying individuals’ responses to tasks like tax filing and academic research participation, the researchers found a strong link between a negative-leaning attitude and the tendency to delay tasks.

Additionally, interventions that balanced participants’ valence weighting bias showed promise in reducing procrastination, suggesting that this psychological bias might be a key target for improving decision-making and task completion. This insight opens new avenues for addressing procrastination by adjusting how individuals weigh positive and negative signals when faced with decisions.

Key Facts:

  1. Valence Weighting Bias and Procrastination: Individuals with a stronger negative bias are more likely to procrastinate, delaying tasks such as tax filing and academic participation.
  2. Intervention Shows Promise: Manipulating the valence weighting bias towards neutrality in self-identified procrastinators led to a significant reduction in their tendency to delay tasks.
  3. Potential for Broader Applications: Understanding and adjusting valence weighting bias could lead to new strategies for enhancing productivity and decision-making, beyond merely combating procrastination.

Source: Ohio State University

Putting off a burdensome task may seem like a universal trait, but new research suggests that people whose negative attitudes tend to dictate their behavior in a range of situations are more likely to delay tackling the task at hand.

The psychological term to describe this mental process is called valence weighting bias, which describes people’s tendency to adapt in new circumstances by drawing more strongly from either their positive or negative attitudes – or, in the context of approaching an unpleasant task, whether negative or positive internal “signals” carry the most weight in guiding the final behavior.  

This shows a frustrated man.
Their analysis showed an association between a more negative weighting bias and a delay in submitting a tax return. Credit: Neuroscience News

“And the question is, which wins that battle – if, indeed, there are elements of both positivity and negativity?” said Russell Fazio, senior author and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

In a series of studies, Fazio and first author Javier Granados Samayoa, a former Ohio State graduate student, found links between a more negative-leaning attitude and procrastination. They also found it’s possible to shift the weighting bias of strong procrastinators toward neutrality and reverse their tendency to delay a task.

“We’re looking at this consideration of the positives and negatives that exist when people are making decisions, and how valence weighting bias shapes which route people take,” Granados Samayoa said.

The research was published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The first of three studies tested a real-world scenario: preparing a federal tax return.

“The idea is that people, at least for a brief moment, are asking the question, ‘Do I want to do this now?’” Fazio said.

“And there really are both positive and negative signals: ‘I certainly don’t want to do that. It’s an aversive task.’ That’s the negative signal. But then there’s also a positive signal: ‘I’ve got to get it done and I’ll feel good if I do it right.’”

A sample of 232 participants reported whether they routinely filed returns early or late during tax season. With that data in hand, Fazio and Granados Samayoa used a research 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.

“What we find is that people whose negative attitudes generalize more strongly tend to engage in unnecessary task delay to a greater extent,” Granados Samayoa said.

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 students’ weighting bias, the study explored whether students’ measures of self-control influenced task-related behavior: How did students characterize their level of motivation or capacity to mull over their initial thoughts about the research program, and did that affect whether students got an early start on research participation or put it off?

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.

“The first study established the basic effect of negative weighting bias, but study two provides some nuance,” said Granados Samayoa, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

“For people who don’t think about it too much or can’t think about it too much, their valence weighting tendencies guide their behavior in a straightforward manner. But if somebody is more motivated and able to think more about it, that might bring other considerations that dampen the influence of the valence weighting bias.”

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 can have a positive effect on behavior, too. These researchers have also found evidence that a negative weighting bias may help people be more realistic when they’re asking themselves, for example, “Have I studied enough for this test?” A positive weighting bias may lead people to convince themselves they’re ready when they’re not.

“It’s better to be more objectively balanced than to be at either extreme,” Fazio said. “But the situation where a particular valence weighting bias is likely to be problematic is going to vary.”

Funding: This work was supported by the John Templeton Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

About this psychology and decision-making research news

Author: Emily Caldwell
Source: Ohio State University
Contact: Emily Caldwell – Ohio State University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Do I want to do this now? Task delay as a function of valence weighting bias” by Russell Fazio et al. Personality and Individual Differences


Do I want to do this now? Task delay as a function of valence weighting bias

Across three studies, we use behavioral measures of task delay to demonstrate that valence weighting bias predicts the extent to which individuals delay initiating a task, particularly when they lack the motivation and/or opportunity (e.g., mental resources) to deliberate on their initial appraisals of situations.

Study 1 revealed that people with a more negative weighting bias delayed submitting tax returns to a greater extent.

In Study 2, students with a more negative weighting bias delayed more as they earned course credit as part of a research experience program, with this relation being all the stronger among those low in trait self-control.

Finally, Study 3 provided causal evidence for this relation: within a sample of students recruited for their procrastination, shifting the valence weighting tendencies of the strong procrastinators toward a more neutral, objectively correct point led to less delay in the context of participation in a research experience program.

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