Keep your heart with all vigilance,

for from it flow the springs of life.

Behavioural Economics and Procrastination

I've been taking a course on Behavioural Economics titled "A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behaviour" by Dan Ariely. I first heard of Dan through a TED talk, got interested and purchased an audiobook version of his first book, 'Predictably Irrational'. Once I learned that he was offering a course in Coursera, I jumped on it without hesitation.

While some of it I've heard before, he does provide more depth and covers more new topics than what I've learned in the first book. Not only that but this 6-week course is by far the most demanding in terms of the time and effort required. The lectures are the longest by far (but never boring) and the amount of reading that I had to plough through brought me back to University once again. It was almost despair when I learned that the course also required a 800-word written assignment.

Though tough, I've learned much from the course and I post here my submission for the written assignment.


Procrastination is a universal problem most evident among students who have to complete a written assignment. In this case, groups of 4-5 students are required to work on a project over the span of 4 months and produce a 3000-word report at the end. Predictably, work commences approximately 2 months before the deadline. To compound the problem, the report has to compete with other demands due around the same period - promotional examinations, oral presentation, individual reflection essay. The combination of these demands exponentially increases the stress and performance is negatively affected. Students are not the only ones affected. Teachers become increasingly concerned with the decline in performance and face increasing stress alongside students. It affects the entire school community and the environment likewise. 

Understanding the Problem

While procrastinating on a 3000-word report alone isn't the sole cause, its effect is significant. The reasons behind procrastination are:

  1. Overconfidence (Ashraf, Camerer, Loewenstein, 2005)
  2. Intertemporal Choice (ibid)
  3. Poor Motivation

Overconfidence is described by Adam Smith as abilities being over-valued and losses under-valued. The temptation to leave it for later by students is due to underestimating the time while overestimating their own abilities to complete the report. They commit what is known as the 'planning fallacy' (Kahneman, 1979).

Even with an accurate perception of time and effort required as well as an objective evaluation of their abilities, procrastination will persist due to the tendency to favour immediate pleasures over long-term gains - intertemporal choice. Immediate pleasures need not come in the form of positive enjoyment, it may also present itself in unimportant tasks that require urgent attention - writing minutes for a meeting; completing the last question in a tutorial that has no credit; designing a club t-shirt. Urgent tasks that require attention now pushes away an important task until the time where a student realises that the time left is less than what is required to complete the report.

Overconfidence and intertemporal choice combined become a recipe for poor motivation. Motivation in this case isn't the desire to do well but the energy to start early and work consistently towards completion. A mistake oft made is that students lack the motivation to do well. The seemingly logical remedy under such assumption to create a sense of urgency by constantly alluding to the possibility of failure and lecturing on moral virtues - perserverance, hardwork, responsibility. 

When we don't know what we want, we are guided by the environment. (Do We Know Our Preferences, 1.3, 0:32)

In reality, the problem is more a case of poor feedback from the environment. Every batch of incoming students doing the report is essentially inexperienced and lacks the knowledge to make good decisions. Seniors may advise based on their own experience, teachers likewise advise based on their repeated observation. But the reason that the information does not take hold is that the students primarily get feedback from themselves - they are the environment. It becomes a negative feedback loop where no one starts early because no one starts early. 

Another problem is that the environment does not provide feedback on the progress made which leads to poor motivation. Much of the process behind writing a 3000-word report is intangible. In other words, any progress made is only known when the actual writing of the report begins. Therefore, a group could have researched extensively and yet seem no better than a group who did nothing. The progress becomes evident when the writing of the report begins by which time it is too late. 


The solution, thus, is to modify the environment to provide feedback so as to provide students with accurate information and knowledge to make good decisions to invest their time and effort.

The first task is to break down the process of group report into stages - research, trial, draft, edit, submit. which accomplishes two things. First, it provides students a tangible way to measure and track progress which itself, serves as a powerful motivator. The second is that it provides students with a more accurate perception of the task at hand - blunting overconfidence.

The second is to provide students an accurate assessment of their abilities. This can be achieved by introducing a 500-word preliminary report at the start. Firstly, it helps start the process. Secondly, it provides a basis for students to estimate the time required for a 3000-word report.

The last may seem simple but providing a calendar, in addition a countdown timer helps students to visualize the time available. It is one thing to think you have four months, another to see the four months with other demands within that period displayed for a visual representation of the actual time available.  



13 May 2013 Update

Each essay is peer reviewed and graded by at least three others and I had the good fortune of getting reviews from four. This meant I also had to review and grade three other essays. Generally speaking, all the essays I wrote were of good quality showing effort and thought invested. I can only hope the comments I provided were useful for their learning. This essay scored an 8.5 out of a possible total of 9 and here are the comments by the anonymous peer reviews.

peer 1 → Very good job! I find your assignment very convincing, so I give you full marks :-).
peer 2 → Great job! Out of the four, the best essay I've evaluated. The only thing I would really improve is a little more evidence to support the solution you've proposed. I think from the reading and the lectures, we know that even with complete information, people make poor decisions because of a lack of self-control. So, while I like the idea of the intermittent deadlines, it would have been interesting to see a solution that included reward substitution.
peer 3 → I liked the "Solution"-part - it was clear!
peer 4 → This is well structured and nicely presented. It would be interesting to see what you thought of the role of self deception in procrastination.

Justification & Substantiation; Reason & Evidence; Tell then Show

Of Sages and Stages