Procrastinators Without Borders

Do the Japanese waste more time than we do?

Read more from Slate’s special issue on procrastination.

Our cultural preoccupations can sometimes be painfully obvious. We’ve sent droves of people abroad to study the sexual mores of other cultures, and pretty much no one to ask how long it takes them to get around to repairing a leaky faucet.

Take New Guinea: It’s small and far away, but almost a century of anthropological research has yielded many interesting facts about the people who live there. We now know, for example, that they (or at least the ones who felt like talking to the white-man visitors) aren’t huge fans of the missionary position. We also have a full photographic taxonomy of Papuan penis gourds.

Did perhaps just one anthropologist ever think to ask a penis-gourd-wearer if he wakes up some days and thinks he’s going to make a new penis gourd, but instead this happens and that happens, and making the new gourd just gets put off, along with everything else that he’s supposed to be doing, until he feels terrible and the only option seems to be to move to a place where no one notices that his gourd is outmoded?

Doubtful. For you plucky grad students in search of untrampled academic terrain, I present the field of cross-cultural procrastination. Slacking off may not be as sexy as, well, sex, but (like sex) everyone seems to do it. The handful of cross-cultural studies that have been done suggest that procrastination is one of those concepts, like color or time, that occurs in other cultures, even if those other cultures have their own ways of seeing it and dealing with it.

There are two dominant modes when it comes to the study of cross-cultural procrastination. The first takes the form of the international managerial missive—an ancient narrative template that delineates the work and business practices of people from one culture, so that a person from another culture can do business with them. These are chatty, opinionated, and prone to generalizations. “Punctuality is the responsibility of the subordinate,” writes corporate cultural training adviser George B. Whitfield III about Jakarta, Indonesia. “The higher the status of a person, the more he or she moves through life causing subordinates to adjust to and swirl around the superior’s schedule.”

The second mode seeks to quantify, in scholarly terms (i.e., with percentages), just who in the world procrastinates and for how long. The most wide-ranging of these efforts was published in the International Journal of Psychology in 1998. Leon Mann, a business-oriented behavioral scientist at the University of Melbourne, organized a project to discover “cross-cultural differences in self-reported decision-making style” among test subjects in six locations—three “individualistic English-speaking cultures” (the United States, Australia, and New Zealand) and three “collectivistic East Asian cultures” (Japan, Hong Kong, and Thailand). In other words, Mann and his team would hand out questionnaires to undergrads around the world and ask them how much they agreed (on a scale of one through five) with statements like, “I delay in making decisions until it is too late.”

The researchers theorized that college students from the “collectivistic” cultures would put off making decisions for longer than those from “individualistic” ones. It turned out that the Japanese students had the highest (which is to say, the most procrastination-inclined) scores, followed by the Taiwanese, the students from Hong Kong, the Americans, the Australians, and the New Zealanders. The differences between the groups weren’t quite as dramatic as Mann had hoped, but they were statistically significant.

Of course, how a student chooses to fill out a questionnaire may not reflect his or her true procrastination behavior. It’s possible that the American students outdid the Australians and Kiwis simply by virtue of our drive toward compulsive self-disclosure. The world-class procrastinators of Japan might have inflated their scores out of a tendency to see self-criticism as a virtue.

Further research hasn’t exactly resolved the question. American procrastination expert Joseph Ferrari did his own cross-cultural studies, with different results; he’s adamant that there are no differences at all across international borders. So far, he’s given a questionnaire very similar to the one used by Mann to people in America, Australia, Peru, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. And he’s found no significant differences in procrastination scores, either between countries or genders.

Ferrari’s findings also contradict a widely publicized meta-analysis by Canadian psychologist Piers Steel. That study looked at several hundred research papers on procrastination and concluded, among other things, that procrastination is on its way up in American culture, spreading its way through the populace like some kind of slacker virus. (In numerous interviews, Steel blamed this epidemic on computers, cell phones, and, most specifically, the game Minesweeper.) But Ferrari has seen no increased scores for procrastination among his U.S. subjects since he began doing research in the early ‘90s.

Ferrari does have his methodological quirks. He works with middle-aged subjects rather than students—because, in his words, “75 percent of students are chronic procrastinators.” He also recruits many of his research subjects from the audiences of his lectures (on procrastination, no less) or from the firms that hire him as a workplace consultant. Drawing on data from this cohort, Ferrari has found significant cross-cultural differences within American society but not abroad. People in white-collar occupations procrastinate more than people in blue-collar jobs, corporate workers procrastinate more than professionals like doctors and lawyers, salesmen procrastinate more than managers, and salesmen in the Pacific Northwest procrastinate more than salesmen on the East Coast.

It may be that the greater occupational diversity among Ferrari’s subjects is swamping out more subtle differences. The cultural differences between social classes could have a more dramatic effect on procrastination scores than nation of origin. In a 2003 study called “Differential Incidence of Procrastination Between Blue- and White-Collar Workers,” Ferrari and his co-author speculate that blue-collar workers might procrastinate as much as white-collar workers if given the chance, but their relative lack of job security and greater supervision were keeping them in a state of enforced timeliness.

We might get better answers from a study that looked at the actual behaviors associated with procrastination, rather than reported self-image. But, despite much effort, I could find only one paper that addressed similar questions without resorting to the questionnaire. Unfortunately, this study wasn’t so much cross-cultural as cross-species. In 1998, at the same time that Leon Mann was studying collectivistic and individualistic undergraduates, a psychology professor named James E. Mazur was studying the procrastination habits of pigeons (PDF).

Mazur’s test subjects were trained to peck illuminated keys at regular intervals, in exchange for a tiny wage in bird feed at the end of their workday. The wage was higher for the birds that worked most consistently and didn’t take any breaks. In the end, pigeons turned out to be such layabouts that even a four-fold increase in food could not incite them to peck in a timely fashion. Pigeons aren’t the only animals to procrastinate, either. Lab monkeys are known to become distracted when the prospect of a reward seems too far off. In 2004, a research team at the National Institute of Mental Health induced better work habits in a group of monkeys by temporarily knocking out a dopamine receptor gene.

Despite this evidence from the animal kingdom, Ferrari insists that procrastination as we know it has no biological basis. Steel disagrees, citing a study of identical twins in his meta-analysis as evidence that there is a gene for putting things off—but the study in question remains unpublished and has never been peer-reviewed.

Even if procrastination turns out to have a genetic component, Ferrari is right to point out that time-wasting in the real world is associated with power, social class, and group values. We don’t yet know the details on how these factors interact, but a bit more research might provide a lot of insight. Come on, grad students—get to work!