Procrastination and the extended will

In Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White (eds.), The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. New York, US: Oxford University Press. pp. 233--253 (2010)
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What experimental game theorists may have demonstrated is not that people are systematically irrational but that human rationality is heavily scaffolded. Remove the scaffolding, and we do not do very well. People are able to get on because they “offload” an enormous amount of practical reasoning onto their environment. As a result, when they are put in novel or unfamiliar environments, they perform very poorly, even on apparently simple tasks. This observation is supported by recent empirically informed shifts in philosophy of mind toward a view of cognition as (to cite the current slogan) “embodied, embedded, enactive, extended.” Andy Clark and others have made a very plausible case for the idea that a proper assessment of human cognitive competence must include environmental components. To limit our attention to what lies within the skin-skull boundary is, in effect, to miss the big story on human rationality. Insofar as we are rational, it is often because of our ingenuity at developing “work-arounds” to the glitches in the fast-and-frugal heuristic problem-solving capabilities that natural selection has equipped us with. And these work-arounds often involve a detour through the environment (so-called offloading of cognitive burdens). When it comes to practical rationality, things are no different. Yet in many discussions of “the will,” there is still a tendency to put too much emphasis on what goes on inside the agent’s head. Our objective in this chapter is to articulate this conception of “the extended will” more clearly, using the strategies that people employ to overcome procrastination for the central set of examples. Procrastination, in our view, constitutes a particular type of self-control problem, one that is particularly amenable to philosophical reflection, not only because of the high volume of psychological research on the subject but also because of the large quantity of “self-help” literature in circulationa literature that provides an invaluable perspective on the everyday strategies that people use in order to defeat (or, better yet, circumvent) this type of self-defeating behavior pattern. In general, what we find is that the internalist bias that permeates discussions of the will gives rise to a set of practical recommendations that overemphasize changing the way one thinks about a task, while ignoring the much richer set of strategies that are available in the realm of environmental scaffolding. In the concluding section, we highlight some of the policy implications of this, particularly regarding social trends involving the dismantling of support structures.

Author Profiles

Joseph Heath
University of Toronto, St. George Campus
Joel Anderson
Utrecht University


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