Are there any animals which procrastinate?
January 29, 2014 11:30 PM   Subscribe

Putting off onerous tasks is a well-known human trait, but are any non-human animals guilty of it? I can only think of the grasshopper in the fable by Aesop, but that is fictional, of course.
posted by dontjumplarry to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's impossible to say. To procrastinate is to know you should do something but to not do it anyway. How can we tell what an animal "knows"?

Your question assumes a degree of anthropomorphication which is not proved to exist.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:31 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are scientists who specialise in animal cognition and experiements designed to look at what animals think and 'know' - evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser wrote an excellent book called What Animals Really Think a few years back. It details a wide number of experiments in animal cognition, many of which deal with animals as moral patients or agents, which I think procrastination would fall under - assuming, as I do, that procrastination carries an implicit moral dimension.

Mauser defines moral patients and agents thus: is there evidence of free will; do they respect for different styles of thinking and acting; do they feel as though they have the right to act n their own desires; do they judge other members of society on a scale of right to wrong; do they judge their own emotions and actions on a comparable scale and use this evaluative mechanism to motivate future interactions.

If the answer is yes, they are moral agents. If no, they are moral patients. Hauser concludes they are moral patients not agents, and explains:

If they are moral agents, they must:

- place values on emotions (like anger, shame, fear)
- have powerful inhibitory mechanisms to allow them to control their passions and alter their expectations
- consider the beliefs, desires and needs of others when planning an action
- understand how their actions will impact on the feelings and thoughts of other individuals in the species, and take these consequences into account
- understand the notions of duty and responsibility
- understand the norms of action and emotion in their society and have the capacity to engage in revolution when their rights are violated

Hauser rejects the idea that animals feel shame or guilt, which I think is central to the idea of procrastination - because he rejects that animals have self-awareness, which he defines as " a sense of self that relies on a richly textured set of beliefs and desires." In summary, to experience moral emotions (and IMHO, to experience procrastination as an awareness of not doing a thing at the 'right' time) one must have self awareness.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:48 AM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If an animal is faced with two conflicting goals ("get some tasty looking food" set against "avoid the aggressive human who is trying to chase me away from it", for example) then they may exhibit "conflict behaviour". This can take the form of "approach avoid" (make incursions towards the food and then run away - in both cases rather tentatively). Alternatively the animal may show "displacement behaviour" (take a sudden interest in smelling a lamp post). Both of these are probably the closest we can get to showing procrastination in animals without getting into anthropomorphication.
posted by rongorongo at 1:51 AM on January 30, 2014 [13 favorites]

This may be too simplistic, but I know many a dog who has gone to great lengths to delay going outside to use the bathroom in the recent cold snap here.
posted by whistle pig at 4:33 AM on January 30, 2014 [11 favorites]

Anecdotally, I have often witnessed dogs delaying doing something their owner is telling them to do, and that they clearly know they should obey. E.g. the dog is sitting on the sofa; the owner tells them to get down; they look kind of shifty and make a token movement towards the edge, but stay put, watching the owner for signs of how much trouble they are going to be in. Eventually they get down when the owner moves towards them and raises their voice.

Similarly with "come" commands for dogs that are more interested in other things, or "drop it" when the dog has something tasty in its mouth. I don't know if you would count these things as procrastination exactly, but they seem quite analogous to human procrastination behaviour. Maybe with the exception that the voice telling them to hurry up and do the unpleasant thing is external rather than internal.
posted by lollusc at 5:26 AM on January 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

My dog is terrible about not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, even when the weather is mild! I'll put her harness on, which she knows means it's time for a walk, but then she'll just lay down as if pretending to go back to sleep. When it's cold out, putting her sweater on is like trying to dress a reluctant toddler.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 5:59 AM on January 30, 2014

This isn't exactly procrastination, and I don't have a source to link to, but my understanding is that squirrels and birds that "store" food for coming months don't store food in a specific location so much as store food all over the place in locations their instincts suggest are good.

When they go back for the food later, they don't go to a known cache, they go to those likely locations and either find something buried or not, and it works out well enough on average.
posted by colin_l at 6:11 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some dogs will intentionally delay enjoying a treat until after their fellow dog has finished his own - then will chow down while enjoying the envy of the other.
posted by mmiddle at 7:22 AM on January 30, 2014

Instead of answering with all these theories on animal behavior, how about an actual list of animals that procrastinate:

Male lions
Young birds
posted by Kruger5 at 8:05 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I guess the big question is what is procrastination? Does it necessarily involve shame or guilt, or is it simply putting off an onerous task? Because if the latter, then my dogs do that all the time. One will stand at the threshold of the door with a 10-hours-full bladder, look at the rain, and turn back to her bed by the fire. She has to pee, she knows she'll feel better if she pees, but she's going to wait until she can't wait any longer because she doesn't want to leave her warm spot. If that's different in some way from me not wanting to leave my bed to get in the shower in the morning, I don't see how. The other will be chasing squirrels, hear me calling him, look right at me knowing from hundreds of repetitions that if he comes I'll give him a treat, and decide to get one more chase in and then turn on a dime and race back to the house. How is that different from me refreshing Metafilter one more time before getting up to make dinner?
posted by HotToddy at 8:30 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess the big question is what is procrastination? 

pro·cras·ti·nate: To postpone or delay needlessly.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:34 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

... which brings you onto larger questions on what delaying or "needlessly" means.

A dog choosing to hold its bladder in the warmth rather than peeing in the cold isn't necessarily procrastinating - it is simply choosing what it considers the lesser of two evils.

A dog choosing to chase squirrels rather than heed its owner isn't necessarily procrastinating- it is choosing the reward of squirrel chasing over the potential risk of rebuke or punishment from its owner.

In short, lots of animals make trade offs and choices to do x or y.

Procrastination, certainly in the Aesop fable, carries the strong sense of "should". The grasshopper should not have sung all summer and should have gathered food. It is failing its neighbour, the ant, by asking it to share its food supplies. It is a moral fable. The "should" is an explicit ethical judgment. The grasshopper had a duty or responsibility. It also had a choice. It exercised free will badly.

A human is choosing to delay x for y. It is debatable whether the dog that disobeys its master is "choosing" in the same way. Is it weighing up, in a meaningful sense, that it wants to do x but it should do y. Or is it, in its little doggie brain, facing competing emotions like fear, or pleasure and choosing one without any dimension of "should" at all. If the dog "thinks" it "should" obey its master, what does "think" and "should" mean in dog world.

More generally, whenever "should" appears as an imperative the question is "should according to what or whose rules"? Which is why the idea of procrastination and [moral] agency are important. If nobody cares whether you do x or y in a certain order have you procrastinated if you do y today and x tomorrow?
posted by MuffinMan at 9:38 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all! I think the anecdote of the dog delaying peeing, even though it causes it to spend more time uncomfortable, is great example.
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:39 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm absolutely certain my dog does, and I've seen other dogs that have. It can be very obvious that the dog knows it needs to do something, and is deliberately putting it off. I've seen it happen even when my dog wasn't aware I was observing him; in other words, it wasn't delay of reaction to an order by a human.

I've never noticed the behavior, despite owning them for years, in: cats, rabbits, cavies (guinea pigs), sheep, cows, ducks, chickens, or turkeys. Odd, that. I've never realized til now that I'd only seen it in dogs. One could argue that cats procrastinate or delay everything, I suppose, but it seems, with cats, to be more along the lines of "they never had any intention of doing it anyway, and their person is an idiot for thinking they should".
posted by stormyteal at 1:35 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

My cat absolutely delays peeing when the weather is bad outside (she pees outside, not in a litterbox in the house). She always pees first thing when she gets up from sleeping on the bed overnight, and I've seen her go to the door, put one little footsie outside, look at me in HORROR at the cold and wetness of the world, and go back to huddle on the couch. In really terrible weather she will repeat this behaviour over and over for hours, and then finally dash outside as quickly as possible, pee, and run back in. It looks like she was pretty desperate at that point, so I imagine she was uncomfortable from the earlier delays. (We've actually started giving her a litterbox inside when it rains because we worry about what holding it like that is doing to her bladder).

So if you accept the pee-holding as procrastination, then cats do it too as well as dogs.
posted by lollusc at 5:54 PM on January 30, 2014

Chocolate Pickle: It's impossible to say. To procrastinate is to know you should do something but to not do it anyway. How can we tell what an animal "knows"?
Oh, come on! We can frequently tell what an animal knows. Stop playing the "animals are black boxes, mysterious and unknowable!" game. Animals exhibit just about every single emotion and emotional reaction humans do. (No big surprise; we're animals)
MuffinMan: A dog choosing to hold its bladder in the warmth rather than peeing in the cold isn't necessarily procrastinating - it is simply choosing what it considers the lesser of two evils.
That is essentially what I do when I procrastinate work I don't want to do by doing less-undesirable work. Or by watching TV. Or napping when I'm not even tired.


My dog has PTSD-like symptoms regarding the car. Hates to travel in it. When I open the back door, he knows what it means. Instead of coming when called, he plays deaf, and guiltily tries to slowly walk somewhere else.

He's procrastinating.

If the walk is over too soon (It always is), he lags behind me. He's procrastinating going home. It never fails: he tries to run 20-30' ahead of me going, and 10-20' behind me coming back. Procrastinating going home.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:15 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Both of my dogs absolutely wait as long as possible to outside to go to the bathroom when it is very cold / very rainy / very snowy outside. If the weather is bad enough (or if she can't wake me up in the middle of the night), my girl will go to the bathroom in front of the washing machine (always in front of the washing machine, never anywhere else) -- my boy, on the other hand, will never under any circumstances go to the bathroom inside. But they both delay as long as possible in bad weather.

I think, though, like a previous commenter said, this is more a "lesser of two evils" sort of thing than a "procrastination" thing per se: Is it less of a pain in the arse to stay in the warm house with a full bladder or the uncomfortability of needing to poop, or go outside to go to the bathroom and get wet and/or cold?
posted by tckma at 11:48 AM on January 31, 2014

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