Sometimes students delay writing up homework or revising for examinations even though they want to succeed and achieve high grades. Instead they may go out with their friends, watch television or even do things that they would not normally do, such as tidying their room or doing the washing up. This tendency to put off tasks, in this case homework or examination revision, is called procrastination. (a) The behavioural psychological approach could explain the behaviour of procrastination in students in terms of operant conditioning.
One characteristic of procrastination is the will to avoid the negative feelings involved with doing, for example, revision. This is an example of negative reinforcement: because the negative feelings are avoided, procrastination will be avoided in the future. Similarly, the alternatives to the tasks which the students are avoiding to do may appear more attractive. Therefore, going out with friends or watching the television may provide a feeling of pleasure, leading to positive reinforcement of the behaviour.
Another form of negative reinforcement could be that past attempts at doing the school work or revision have failed, and so to avoid the frustration involved with attempting but failing to do well, not trying to do so avoids this frustration in the future. Social Learning Theory may also offer a behavioural explanation, in that the students may see their friends having a good time with each other, thus receiving a ‘reward’. This vicarious reinforcement would lead the student to join his or her friends, causing procrastination to be repeated.
Alternatively, the psychodynamic approach may offer an explanation for this behaviour. According to Freud, the id, one of the three components of the psyche, operates on the pleasure principle. That is, it seeks immediate gratification for its needs. If revision does not fulfil such needs, it may be necessary to try other things, which could explain why students go out with friends or watch the television as an alternative.
In addition, doing school work may be a distressing concept for the ego, another component of the psyche, meaning that defence mechanisms must be used. An example of such a defence mechanism is denial: the student may involuntarily deny that he or she has revision or school work to complete, telling themselves for example that there is still plenty of time, and instead spend time with their friends (which could also be seen as a form of rationalisation).
In addition to this, the student may feel guilty for not doing revision, and to avoid punishment from the superego will do things that they would normally not, such as tidying their room or washing up. Having done such things, they may feel that they have achieved at least some positive results, mitigating the fact that they have not done their school work.