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For Dreaded Tasks, Do You Put It Off or Get It Over With?

When we’re looking forward to something fun, such as going on vacation, most people try to make it happen as soon as possible. But when it comes to dreaded tasks, like getting a root canal, why do some people procrastinate while others get it over with right away? New research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) Sauder School of Business may have some answers.

The findings, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, give key insights into how excitement, anticipation and dread factor into people’s decision-making.

“This stems from the phenomenon known as ‘the sign effect’,” said UBC Sauder assistant professor Dr. David Hardisty, the study’s author. “A person’s desire to get positive things right away is stronger than their desire to put off negative ones. However, the timing of when a person wants to handle negative things is less obvious.”

The study shows that when people look toward positive events in the future, such as an upcoming vacation, they experience pleasure, but also impatience, which makes for a mixed emotional experience.

When it comes to upcoming losses, however, the emotions are typically all bad — even if that root canal is far away and life at this moment is good. So rather than postpone those negative events, some people prefer to get them out of the way as soon as possible.

“When you’re booking a vacation, you’re vicariously enjoying the vacation, which is great, but you’re also contrasting it with your current situation, which is bad. So you have that mix,” said Hardisty. “And for losses, it’s more of a unidimensional bad feeling. When you have a dentist’s appointment coming up, you don’t like thinking about the pain in the dental chair.”

In one experiment, the team posted two advertisements on Facebook for retirement planning: one ad read “Looking forward to retirement benefits?”, and the other read “Worried about retirement expenses?” The click-through rate for this second ad, focused on reducing worry, was 43 percent higher.

In a second experiment, to create controlled positive and negative experiences, the researchers used jelly beans which come in flavors ranging from orange sherbet and watermelon to dirt and rotten egg. Participants were given the jelly beans to eat at different times, and rated how they felt about their upcoming gains — the good-tasting jelly beans — and losses (the bad ones).

According to Hardisty, some people procrastinate and put off negative events, but not as many as one would expect, because the negative anticipation is so unpleasant. The findings also counteract earlier research that argued people put off positive events so they can savor the sweet anticipation.

In a separate but similar study, the research team examined how people feel about past events, both positive and negative, because it removes the effects of anticipation. In other words, how do people feel about that root canal they had a month ago, or that relaxing vacation?

The study found that remembering bad events feels bad, and remembering good events feels good, effectively wiping out the sign effect.

The more events recede into the past, Hardisty said, the more muted our emotional responses to them become.

Although the findings provide a fascinating look at human behavior, Hardisty said they also offer plenty of practical applications when it comes to everything from contemplating car loans to mapping out retirement plans.

“It’s exciting to have an explanation for why people make choices the way we do,” he said. “Hopefully it will lead to better interventions that can help people make better long-term choices about their finances and other life events.”

Source: University of British Columbia

For Dreaded Tasks, Do You Put It Off or Get It Over With?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). For Dreaded Tasks, Do You Put It Off or Get It Over With?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/04/for-a-dreaded-task-do-you-procrastinate-or-get-it-over-with/157033.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 4 Jun 2020 (Originally: 4 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 4 Jun 2020
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