Motivated to Procrastinate

By: Yendi Neil

From time to time, everyone engages in procrastination, or delaying completing necessary tasks. In the short-term, procrastination can have benefits in protecting one’s self-esteem but can negatively impact one’s performance in the long run. In general, people who have higher fears of failure are more likely to procrastinate, but sometimes this fear of failure is linked to stereotyped beliefs about one’s group (i.e., race, gender). This stereotype threat has been shown to impede performance on standardized tests and limits the achievement goals that individuals set for themselves.

Deemer and colleagues (2013) surveyed 223 undergraduate students (54.5% female; 45.5% male) who were enrolled in what the authors defined as STEM (biology, chemistry, and physics) and non-STEM (psychology) courses at a midsized university in the southeastern United States. Overall, women in STEM reported feeling greater stereotype threat concerns in STEM courses compared to men. Looking into academic procrastination, women and men reported similar levels, but stereotype threat was only related to procrastination for women, not men. Both women and men who were high in mastery orientation (e.g., motivated by success and learning) were less likely to engage in procrastination. Contrary to previous findings, however, Deemer and colleagues found that for women (but not men) in STEM classes, high levels of stereotype threat only increased procrastination if the woman was low in avoidance orientation (e.g., not motivated by fear of failure). The authors suggested that women may adopt avoidance goals to prevent the stereotyped belief from coming true.

In the larger picture, however, avoidance goals have been associated with a range of negative outcomes. Although they may serve a protective function regarding procrastination, one would be hard pressed to recommend adopting avoidance goals (i.e., I don’t want to fail) over mastery goals (i.e., I want to learn and perform well). For students, and particularly women in STEM courses, this means maintaining a focus on the experience of learning or the benefits of high performance, rather than the potential costs of failure, is recommended. Outside of the classroom, the same pattern should hold up, that a mastery orientation may be beneficial overall (lower procrastination), even in the face of stereotype threat.

Deemer, E. D., Smith, J. L., Carroll, A. N., & Carpenter, J. P. (2013). Academic procrastination in STEM: Interactive effects of stereotype threat and achievement goals, The Career Development Quarterly, 62, 143-155.

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