Can high art tell us something about procrastination?

Does thinking about big abstract concepts – instead of little concrete facts – lead to procrastination? Psyblog writes about a series of new studies on this question. From one study:

Participants were presented with one of the two pictures below just before they were asked to complete a simple survey. In the first experimental condition participants looked at the full painting of (pointillist Georges-Pierre Seurat’s) La Parade and were told it is a good example of neo-impressionism in which the artist was using order and colour to invoke emotion and harmony.

In the second condition participants just saw (part of) the detail and were told that this demonstrated the pointillist technique of using contrasting points of colour to build up an image.

After this both groups completed the same survey which they were asked to return within three weeks. The survey’s question, however, were essentially irrelevant, the only thing experimenters were interested in was how long participants took to complete and return the questionnaire. This was their measure of procrastination.

The results of this apparently simple manipulation were striking. Those who were thinking about the techniques of pointillism (concrete construal) returned their questionnaires in an average of 12.5 days while those thinking about emotion and harmony (abstract construal) took almost twice as long at an average of 20.5 days.

Reader Jeff Zemla thinks there’s a lesson in here for choice architects trying to design procedures to avoid procrastination. Keep the nudgee’s focus narrow. At least, when you put up a post-it note reminder to workout, it’s better to say, “Burn 500 calories today,” instead of, “Imagine how good you’ll look in that new outfit.”

Addendum: Is daydreaming just an exercise in “abstract construal”? Readers who want to see what La Parade looks like can go here.


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