I have a hypothesis humans evolved to procrastinate because it helped avoid uncertainty. The negative emotions procrastination created deterred us from the unknown.
Why would we evolve such a strong emotional response towards uncertainty?
Because for most of evolutionary history, uncertainty carried unknown risks.
Unknown paths were treacherous to take.
Entire species and tribes were likely wiped out if they had a preference for risk-taking past a certain level.
You can think of uncertainty as a place where there are too many variables at play for our brains to confidently assess. Too many variables means we can no longer be confident in the consequences of our actions.
Naturally then, you’d expect humans to evolve heuristics to stay away from uncertainty. Like say procrastination.
Have you ever wondered why procrastinating makes you feel bad?
Why would taking time off from work make you feel bad? Shouldn’t it feel like a vacation?
My hypothesis is if emotions evolved to guide our behavior, procrastination and the negative feelings that arise from it would have also evolved to keep you away from uncertainty (where risk dramatically increases).
People famously procrastinate on their taxes because taxes are complex. It’s uncertain territory.
To our brains, uncertainty is dangerous. You should stay away from uncertainty. Why?
Because your risks of dying dramatically increase when you don’t know what you’re doing.
“Well hold on there Andrew. There’s a lot I don’t understand but I’m still alive. Uncertainty doesn’t seem risky to me.”
We have the privilege of living in an age where we understand much more about the world. We have centuries of knowledge hard-earned by trial-and-error to guide us and protect us.
Imagine living in Australia 41,000 years ago. You decide to take a risk and go for a swim.
As you’re swimming you see a small, translucent animal. It looks squishy. You’ve never seen anything like it before. You touch it, and immediately feel a burning sensation.
Unfortunately you just touched a box jellyfish. You’ll die in the next 6 hours.
It’s the end of the road for you.
Procrastination then is a signal to stay away from things you don’t understand.
Because the things you didn’t understand could kill you.
And while we understand more about the world now, we still have those heuristics guiding our behavior.
They’re not present in every context, but they do pop up from time to time.
Because overestimating uncertainty is better for survival than underestimating it.
Another way of avoiding uncertainty is through Distributed Cognition.
Have you ever wondered why humans constantly mimic each other?
Start drinking a bottle of water, and odds are the person next to you will start drinking too.
Surround yourself with athletic friends and in a few months, you’ll start being more athletic too.
Why is that?
I believe it’s because humans that automatically distributed their knowledge with each other had an evolutionary advantage over those that didn’t.
Individuals aren’t as knowledgeable as they think they are — it’s our society that carries the sum of human knowledge in bits and pieces.
We do things we don’t entirely understand because others have done it.
The choices we make, the food we eat, the careers we choose — our brains often default to what others are doing as a computational shortcut.
This is because from an evolutionary perspective, if others were doing it, and they didn’t die, odds are, it was safe for us too.
But while we constantly exchange information with each other, it seems like we’re not always aware of it.
It’s why humans do some rather strange things. Like repeat ideas they don’t understand. Or do what their friends are doing, even if their friends are doing bad things.
Distributed cognition works well for the survival of a group — not so much for the survival of an individual.
Distributed cognition is our brain’s way of assessing the risk of a path without spending a lot of time computing all the variables.
But it’s not necessarily the best way to gather information — just a quick one.
So, humans seem to have evolved two ways of navigating through uncertainty.
- Avoid it (Procrastination)
- Observe what others do (Distributed Cognition)
There’s a missing step here though: Who goes first?
Well, it seems like there are certain kinds of individuals willing to take risks that nobody else will.
But they’re rare. They’re the misfits. The creatives. The outliers.
Or the lepers.
They don’t fit in with everybody else.
They’re the sacrificial lambs upon which the rest of society moves forward.
Or the leaders, if they survive.