Jason Collins


October 20, 2010

Procrastination bothers me. Not in the sense that I want to procrastinate, but biologically. Why would a tendency to procrastinate evolve?

Even without considering evolution, time inconsistency is a subject of debate in economics. The problem of “hyperbolic discounting”, in which people rapidly discount events in the near future but discount more slowly for further delay, has been well established in experiments. This also accords with our experience (For an example of hyperbolic discounting, as well as some general thoughts on procrastination, it is worth reading James Surowiecki’s recent article). From a rational perspective, why would someone make a rational decision about the future but then change their mind when that time nears?

Biologically this shortcoming is more serious. The individual that is able to make the rational choice at all times should have higher fitness and come to dominate the population.

One explanation for hyperbolic discounting may be uncertainty. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. But that explanation is only satisfactory where there is immediate reward. What of situations where we know something is good for us and yet we delay the up-front cost?