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Are there any non-human animals that take a task they don't want to do and think to themselves "Eh, I'll do it tomorrow"? Even if they know the task will be harder and/or more unpleasant by putting it off? One of our Patreon subscribers wants to know if other animals procrastinate like we do.

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Remember the fable of the ant and the grasshopper?

The ant works hard during the summer to store up food while the grasshopper procrastinates the year away and winds up starving when winter comes But that fable is clearly talking about people, because other animals don’t procrastinate. Right?

Well, David Turnell asked us over on Patreon if there are any non-human animals that procrastinate. And it turns out, some do display behaviors that look a lot like procrastination. At least in a lab setting.

Which may come as a bit of a relief for my fellow grasshoppers out there. [intro jingle] Thanks to Brilliant for supporting this SciShow video! As a SciShow viewer, you can keep building your STEM skills with a 30 day free trial and 20% off an annual premium subscription at Before I dig into a video about procrastination, I should probably establish a working definition of it.

For research purposes, scientists have defined procrastination as putting off a task, only to have to deal with a worse version of that task later. Like say, instead of cleaning your bathroom once a week like you're supposed to you procrastinate and then, you have to clean an extra dirty bathroom when you have people over for the holidays. The underlying assumption here is that the task you’re putting off is something you don’t really want to do.

I mean, I’m certainly way less likely to procrastinate getting coffee with a friend than cleaning my bathroom. I might even get coffee with a friend to avoid cleaning the bathroom. And if you’ve ever procrastinated by googling whether or not other animals do it too, you may have come across some studies in pigeons.

They’re basically the only publications we could find out there with the explicit goal of studying procrastination in non-human animals. The first one comes to us from 1996. The title? “Procrastination by Pigeons”.

And it ultimately tested if pigeons would rather wait around for a bit before starting a pecking task, or after completing it. Because the birds appeared to prefer waiting before, the scientists concluded that this was evidence of pigeon procrastination. But there were a couple of hiccups in those experiments.

For example, the pigeons knew that at some point they were going to get a food reward. So the experiments were kinda looking to see how long pigeons were willing to put off getting something good, rather than avoiding something bad. But also, he authors assumed pigeons don’t like both waiting around as well as pecking tasks.

And that assumption is debated in the literature. If, as other researchers argue, pigeons don’t feel any particular way about waiting and pecking then we still need to know if they’d intentionally put off the negativity of an unpleasant task, which is how I think most people would define procrastination. Luckily, other research seems to have gotten to the bottom of that question, even if the authors didn’t call it procrastination.

This work was actually published in the 70s, and in it, the pigeons received a small shock. Nowhere near enough to kill them, just enough that they’d want to avoid it. Then, the pigeons learned that they could choose when they got shocked.

They could have this experience they don’t like either sooner or later. When the options were getting shocked in the next 10 seconds or getting shocked three minutes from now, the pigeons chose to put off the shock. So even though they had to go through with the same unpleasant thing either way, they chose to be unhappy later.

We’re getting closer to the idea of getting coffee now and cleaning the bathroom later, but this still isn’t the same as having to clean an even dirtier bathroom once the time comes. That’s Which is where the rat studies come in. When a different team of scientists gave rats the option to have a small shock sooner or a bigger shock later, they chose the smaller one.

So it looks like rats don’t procrastinate. Maybe they’re smarter than us after all. Unless… you give them the option to plan ahead.

When the smaller shock was pushed farther into the future, two of the three rats chose to procrastinate on making the decision about whether or not they’d procrastinate. It didn’t really make a difference in terms of which option they chose, but some rats were just not ready to commit and wanted to make the decision at a later time. So rats might be like us, with some individuals more inclined to procrastinate than others.

Although, larger samples would be nice to have before we make any real conclusions. However, it’s worth noting that the authors of this paper described their rats’ behavior as impulsiveness and a lack of self-control. Not procrastination.

So there appears to be more than one way to interpret these studies. We could be learning about impulsive behavior, control, procrastination, or all of the above. In the end, some animals put off things they don’t like, even when they know it’s coming later.

And other animals prefer to get it over with so it doesn’t become worse. Not all animals might procrastinate the way we do, but we do share at least some parts of procrastination with them. Ultimately, there are all sorts of reasons to study this.

Maybe it would lead to a better understanding of survival strategies. But maybe we all just want an excuse to feel less guilty, because if other animals procrastinate too, then at least humans aren’t the only ones who knowingly make things worse for ourselves. So If you’re a procrastinator, it looks like you’re not alone.

Why don’t you celebrate by watching more SciShow videos instead of doing that thing you really should be doing? This SciShow video is supported by Brilliant, an online learning platform with thousands of interactive lessons in science, computer science, and math. Their course on Reasoning with Algebra is just for you if you’re the kind of grasshopper who can reason away all of that procrastination.

And you’ll need the problem solving skills that this algebra course teaches if you let those procrastinated problems get bigger with time. It may be a course focused on mathematical equations, but the intuition and understanding that the course emphasizes are way more translatable than just finding the answer to a math problem. That’s why Brilliant makes each course interactive, with puzzles, quizzes, and explanations for guided problems, so that that information sticks in your head and you can carry it with you outside of the course.

You can try it for free for 30 days at or by clicking the link in the description down below. That link also gives you 20% off an annual premium Brilliant subscription. Thanks for watching this SciShow video! [ OUTRO ]