Whether you live or work with a procrastinator (or you’re one yourself), the last thing you’d think these chronic stallers need is another excuse. However, new research may give procrastinators a break—especially women. It turns out that as much as 46% of the reason for stalling rather than knuckling down to tasks has to do with anatomy and genes.
Procrastinators hear the well-known proverb Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today more times than they’d probably like. But what keeps procrastinators from getting things done is not laziness but cognitive flexibility—jumping from thought to thought because they’re so easily distracted. Now research is finding clues for why and how this happens. To better understand, here’s some background on procrastination and the brain…
The Science of Procrastination
One of the things that determines impulsivity is brain levels of the messenger chemical dopamine, which stimulates the parts of the brain that are responsible for impulsive thoughts. High levels of dopamine make it harder to focus on goal-directed, action-oriented decisions—and, in fact, are associated with higher scores on psychological tests for procrastination.
Dopamine levels vary by individual…and by gender. The hormone estrogen stimulates the release of dopamine, and also stimulates the brain cells (neurons) that bind to dopamine. It is well-known from studies going back 20 years that estrogen increases the number of neurons that are sensitive to dopamine. Both men and women have estrogen in their bodies, but women have it in higher amounts—and have a slightly higher response to dopamine.
Dopamine production is also controlled by a gene. The higher-expression variant of the gene causes the body to produce more dopamine…while the lower-expression variant causes the body to produce less dopamine.
A 2014 study of procrastination from University of Colorado Boulder that compared fraternal twins with identical twins found that both procrastination and impulsivity were about 46% and 49% respectively the result of inherited genetic traits. (Because all twins share the same environment, but only identical twins share the same genes, comparing results between the two kinds of twins allowed researchers to calculate what could be attributed to environment versus to genes.)
The Procrastinating Brain
More recently, researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, conducted a study in 2018 that found that an area of the brain involved with processing emotion—the amygdala—was larger in people who scored high on a test for procrastination. The researchers then wondered whether the larger amygdala in procrastinators was linked to having the higher-dopamine-expression gene. So they conducted another study.
For the newest study, 278 healthy adults, ages 18 to 37 and fairly equally divided between men and women, were asked to fill out questionnaire tests for procrastination. The students also had gene tests to determine their type of dopamine-expression gene…and brain scans of their amygdalas.
Genetic testing found that 113 students had the lower-expression gene and 163 students had the higher-expression gene, evenly split between men and women. Results also found…
- For women, having the high-expression gene was associated with a significantly higher procrastination test score—about two points higher on a scale of 0 to 12. No difference in score was found for men with the higher-expression gene.
- Brain scans of both men and women with higher procrastination scores did confirm that they had bigger amygdalas, as found in the earlier research—but a larger amygdala was not linked to either variant of the dopamine-expression gene.
This is the first study to suggest that at least part of the reason some people are prone to procrastination may have to do with genetics and anatomy. The researchers suspect that the high-dopamine-expression gene combined with higher levels of estrogen in the young women accounted for their higher procrastination scores—and explains why the same effect wasn’t seen in men. The researchers are planning further research into the roles of estrogen and also norepinephrine, another chemical brain messenger controlled by the dopamine-expression gene, which may shed more light on what drives procrastination.
In the meantime, you may be tempted—especially if you’re a woman—to say that it’s not your fault that you do everything at the last minute…or late (or never). But as with other conditions influenced by genetic tendencies, you’re not a prisoner of your DNA. It may take more effort to knuckle down and get going—but it’s not impossible!