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Burns et al.



Academic Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Control: Associations with Vigilant and Avoidant Coping
Lawrence R. Burns Katherine Dittmann Ngoc-Loan Nguyen Jacqueline K. Mitchelson
Grand Valley State University
This study examined individual differences associated with measures of academic procrastination, perfectionism, control, and vigilant and avoidant coping using a sample of 157 undergraduates. Results indicated that a positive relationship exists between perfectionism and vigilant coping, and that procrastinators do not tend to exhibit avoidant coping. Interestingly, issues of control were positively associated with avoidant coping. Overall, the findings suggest that procrastination, perfectionism, and control play a significant role in the employment of these coping styles.

The purpose of this study was to provide a better understanding of procrastination, perfectionism, and controlbehaviors and coping styles that appear to be functionally related to vigilant and avoidant coping styles. Procrastination, perfectionism, and control have recently been the focus of extensive research (Ferrari & Mautz, 1997; Paulhus & Van Selst, 1990; Terry-Short, Owens, Slade & Dewey, 1995; Tice & Baumeister, 1997). Krohne (1989, 1993) has proposed a comprehensive model of coping styles, identifying behaviors that appear to share common characteristics with the traits of procrastination, perfectionism, and control. While relationships have been identified between procrastination and perfectionism (Ferrari, 1992; Flett, Hewitt, & Martin, 1995), many individual differences associated with procrastination, perfectionism, control, and possible links with coping styles remain to be studied. Vigilant coping is prompted by situations possessing a high degree of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety (Krohne, 1993; Miller, 1996). In such
Author Info: Lawrence R. Burns, Department of Psychology; Grand Valley State University, 1 Campus Drive, Allendale, MI 49401-9403; (616) 895-2862; fax (616) 895-2480; email: BURNSL@GVSU.edu. Ferrari, J.R., & Pychyl, T.A. (Eds.). Procrastination: Current Issues and New Directions. [Special Issue]. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2000, Vol. 15, No. 5, 3546. 2000 Select Press, Corte Madera, CA, 415/209-9838.



situations, vigilant copers typically seek more information, are more prone to worry (Davey, Hampton, Farrell, & Davidson, 1992), have a lower threshold for pain (Krohne, 1993), and are quick to relinquish control to a more competent individualan expertonce adequate information is gathered and trust in the expert is felt (Miller, 1996). Avoidant copers prefer minimal information in potentially stressful situations; they worry less and prefer to avoid or distract themselves from threatening cues or information (Krohne, 1993). By using an avoidant style, such individuals may be better able to deal with everyday issues compared to those who employ a vigilant style of coping (Miller, Combs, & Kruus, 1993). Academic procrastination, typically considered to be situationspecific, involves an intentional delay in completing academic-related tasks and may result from a fear of failure (Senecal, Koestner, & Vallerand, 1995; Schouwenburg, 1992), a tendency to postpone tasks necessary to achieve a specific goal (Schouwenburg, 1995), poor time management (Milgram, Marshevsky, & Sadeh, 1995), or task aversiveness (Milgram, Batori, & Mowrer, 1993; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Just prior to (or after) a deadline, procrastinators suffer from worry, high levels of anxiety, and low levels of self-control (Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995). While negative self-evaluation and negative affect are well established concomitants of procrastination, Ferrari, Wolfe, Wesley, Schoff, & Beck (1995) have also identified heightened arousal or thrill seeking, as a significant motivation for procrastination. An intolerance of arousal is central to Krohnes conceptualization of avoidance (1989, 1993). Ferrari et al. (1995) describe procrastination as an avoidance strategy and a way to escape self-awareness, notably for those with a diffuse-avoidant identity (see also Rothblum, 1990; Berzonsky & Ferrari, 1996). We hypothesize that procrastinators will use cognitions and behaviors similar to avoidant coping to repress discomforting emotions and avoid other threatening stimuli. Perfectionism is a personality construct that has been conceptualized using various multidimensional models. Current models and measures tend to construe perfectionism as primarily or exclusively pathological. This view has some inherent limitations (Hamachek, 1978; Terry-Short et al., 1995). Based on the assumption that perfectionism can also be a normal or beneficial (as opposed to pathological) personality trait, Terry-Short et al. (1995) developed the Positive and Negative Perfectionism Scale, or PNP. The PNP has two subscales. The first is the positive perfectionism subscale and characteristics include a focus on personal strengths, positive outcomes, and the experience of positive reinforcement as a consequence of perfectionistic behavior (e.g., athletes

Burns et al.



often succeed as a function of highly demanding, albeit positive, or nonpathological perfectionism). The second subscale of the PNP assesses negative perfectionism which is a personality trait motivated by a fear of failure or to avoid negative reinforcement. A focus on past failures, unrealistically high standards, and high levels of stress and anxiety are all characteristics of perfectionism that are similar to Millers (1979, 1993) description of monitoring, or vigilant coping, behaviors. Moreover, Krohnes (1989, 1993) vigilance is functionally based on an intolerance of ambiguity. By focusing on the possibility of failure (particularly in circumstances involving negative evaluation by others) and inevitable uncertainty, a negative perfectionists fears may thus motivate a seeking out of predictability, by seeking informationa prominent feature of vigilant coping. Avoidance reduces or eliminates arousal because individuals ignore or avoid threatening stimuli. People reporting higher levels of negative perfectionism, have an acute sensitivity to perceived and actual negative evaluation by others. They may simply be unable to ignore or avoid the negative affect and cognitions associated with negative perfectionism. Logically, the greater the fear of negative evaluation, the less successfully avoidant individuals will report being. Conversely, positive perfectionism is based on a different set of assumptions, with an emphasis on individual rewards and positive contingencies. Performance is not initiated to minimize negative consequences, but rather to obtain praise and recognition as well as feelings of mastery or control. Control is another important variable to examine in relation to vigilant and avoidant coping. The desire for control is a stable personality trait (Burger, 1987). Perceived control over ones environment plays a major role in such matters as depression, health, and education (Burger, 1990). Individuals with a high generalized desire for control are highly motivated to manage the events of their lives (Burger, 1984). They prefer to make their own decisions, prefer to avoid unpleasant situations by manipulating events, and are assertive, decisive, and active (Burger, 1985, 1987, 1990; Burger & Cooper 1979). Emotional reactivity and arousal appear to vary greatly depending upon ones desire for control (Burger, 1984, 1989). Individuals showing a desire for higher levels of generalized, as well as decisive control, are expected to also show higher levels of avoidant coping. The vigilant coper tends to exaggerate threatening information in situations of high anxiety and stress. Therefore, vigilant copers are likely to seek medical help, often unnecessarily. Vigilant copers are initially active in seeking information about health care, for example, but then tend to relinquish control, acquiescing to the decisions of others and becoming passive in treatment (Miller, 1996).



They prefer more information than avoidant copers, but as Miller hypothesizes, it could be they also exaggerate their own inability to control aspects of their health and lives. We therefore hypothesize a negative association between the desire for decisive control and vigilance. Those highly disposed to preparation and preventative control show a need for as much information as possible before beginning a task (Burger & Cooper, 1979). Hence, a positive association between the desire for preparatory and preventative control and vigilance is expected (see also Miller, 1981). The Spheres of Control Scale conceptualizes control in terms of three different spheres: personal, interpersonal, and socio-political (Paulhus, 1983; Paulhus & Van Selst, 1990). Along with enhanced personal efficacy, perceived personal control is thought to reflect individual differences in efforts to maintain or obtain control with the nonsocial environment in situations involving personal achievement. Perceived interpersonal control reflects the individuals efficacy in interactions with others (Paulhus, 1983; Paulhus & Van Selst, 1990). We hypothesize that, if, as Burger (1990) asserts, some of the generalized drive for control is based on affective moderation, individuals showing higher levels of perceived personal and interpersonal control will also report a preference for avoidant coping. Procrastination, perfectionism, and control likely play a significant role in the employment of vigilant and avoidant coping strategies. We hypothesize that negative perfectionists will show higher levels of vigilance and lower levels of avoidance. Additionally, we hypothesize that procrastinators will show higher levels of avoidant coping. We hypothesize that preparatory and preventative control will be positively associated with vigilance and that a desire for decisive control will be negatively associated with vigilance. Finally, we hypothesize that a desire for generalized and decisive control, along with higher levels of perceived personal and interpersonal control will be associated with avoidant coping. METHOD Participants The participants in our sample were 157 undergraduates (85 women, 72 men) enrolled in an introductory psychology course. Participants completed all measures in exchange for extra credit. The sample had a mean age of 20.0 (SD = 5.0) years. The ethnic/racial composition was 92% Caucasian, 2% African-American, 2% Asian-American, 2% Hispanic-American, and 2% other.

Burns et al.



Procedure After informed consent was obtained, participants were given the following scales in sequential order: Positive and Negative Perfectionism Scale, Spheres of Control, Desire for Control Scale, Procrastination Scale, and the Mainz Coping Inventory. To ensure anonymity, only code numbers were placed on these questionnaires. At the completion of these, all participants were fully debriefed. Psychometric Measures A general description of each of the measures used in the current study follows below. Cronbachs alpha for each in the current study may be found in Table 1 in the results section. Positive and Negative Perfectionism Scale (PNP). This scale assesses perfectionism from a functional or behaviorist perspective. Two subscales represent the different types of reinforcers a person could experience. Accordingly, positive perfectionism is believed to be a type of perfectionism resulting from linking positive reinforcements with antecedent perfectionistic behaviors. Negative perfectionism is theoretically linked to efforts to avoid negative reinforcement. The PNP (TerryShort et al., 1995) consists of 40 items, using a 5-point Likert-style scale. Scores were obtained by summing the coded set of 18 questions representing positive perfectionism and 22 questions depicting negative perfectionism. Cronbachs alphas obtained in the norm sample were .87 and .89 for the positive perfectionism and the negative perfectionism subscales respectively (Terry-Short et al., 1995). Desire for Control Scale (DC). The DC Scale (Burger & Cooper, 1979) is a 20-item measure designed to measure the general desire for control one has over events in ones life. Participants respond on a Likert-style scale from 1-7, with anchor statements being: The statement doesnt apply to me at all, and The statement always applies to me. The DC Scale includes five subscales. In this study we used the following three subscales: (a) general desire for control (Id rather run my own business and make my own mistakes than listen to someone elses orders.); (b) decisiveness (There are many situations in which I would prefer only one choice rather than having to make a decision.); and (c) preparation-prevention control (When I see a problem I prefer to do something about it rather than sit by and let it continue.). The test-retest reliability for the DC scale is .75, and the internal consistency is .80 (Burger & Cooper, 1979). Spheres of Control Scale (SOC-3). The SOC-3 (Paulhus & Van Selst, 1990) is a 30-item scale that assesses three components of perceived control: personal control, interpersonal control, and sociopolitical control. For the purposes of this study we chose to use the



personal and interpersonal subscales. Personal control occurs when an individual vies for control with the nonsocial environment in situations of personal achievement and interpersonal control reflects individual strivings for control in situations directly involving others (Paulhus, 1983). Items are self-scored on seven-point Likert-style scales ranging from totally inaccurate (1) to totally accurate (7). Negatively keyed items are reversed during the scoring phase, and two separate scores are obtained by summing ten items composing each subscale. Items were intermixed on the questionnaire before being administered. The median alpha reliability for the full SOC-3 is reported as .80 (Paulhus & Van Selst, 1990) and its test-retest at four weeks is reported as .90 (Paulhus, 1983). Tuckman Procrastination Scale (TPS). The TPS (Tuckman, 1991) is a 35-item measure that assesses three aspects of procrastinationa general self-description of the tendency to deal with things, a tendency to avoid unpleasantness and to have difficulty doing unpleasant things, and a tendency to blame others for ones own predicaments. We used the 16item short form of this scale. Tuckmans scale is defined by Ferrari et al. (1995), as being a measure of academic procrastination. Items have four response choices ranging from thats me for sure to thats not me for sure. Cronbachs alpha for the TPS is reported as .86 (Tuckman, 1991). Mainz Coping Inventory (MCI). The MCI (Krohne, 1989, 1993) is a stimulus-response inventory measuring habitual preferences for vigilant and avoidant coping. Eight fictitious situations potentially capable of eliciting anxiety (public speaking, dental appointment, etc.) are presented. Ten randomly arranged (five vigilant and five avoidant) statements such as I think about everything that could go wrong..., or I stay completely calm..., follow each fictitious situation. Students respond to each statement using a true-false format. Answers are summed up separately for vigilant and avoidant items across all eight situations. Internal consistency is reported to be .85 and test-retest reliability at one week is .65 (Krohne, 1989; Krohne, Egloff, Varner, Burns, Weidner, & Ellis, 1998). RESULTS All zero-order correlations are reported in Table 1. Our first hypothesis was that academic procrastinators would exhibit avoidant coping. Surprisingly, the correlation between academic procrastination and avoidant coping was negative. Our second hypothesis was that perfectionists would exhibit higher levels of self-reported vigilant coping. Specifically, vigilant copers would report higher levels of negative perfectionism. This was the case. Avoidance was, as expected, nega-


Means, Cronbach Alphas, and Correlations between Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Control with Vigilant and Avoidant Coping







AVD [.92] .26*** .17* -.23** .15 -.10 -.29*** 58.0 15.6 10.5 6.2 38.7 32.2 -.07 .21** -.30*** .39*** -.07 .44*** .02 .18* .24** 13.7 3.3 -.17* .15 [.48] [.55] .33*** .17* 21.3 3.8 .00 [.79] [.85]



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[.55] .40*** 49.5 6.1 [.77] 48.4 9.1














Notes: N= 157; VIG=Vigilance; AVD=Avoidance; PP=Positive Perfection; NP=Negative Perfection; PRO=Procrastination; GDC=Generalized Desire for Control; DEC=Desire for Decisiveness Control; PPC=Desire for Preparation-Prevention Control; PC=Personal Control; IPC=Interpersonal Control; Cronbachs alpha in brackets on the diagonal. *p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001




tively associated with vigilance. The correlations of vigilance and avoidance with positive perfectionism were both positive. We hypothesized that cognitive-avoiders would endorse a greater desire for generalized and decisive control along with higher levels of perceived personal and interpersonal control. Conversely, it was expected that vigilant copers would endorse greater desire for preparation and preventative control and indicate a strong lack of desire for decisive control. As anticipated, the correlation between general desire for control and avoidant coping was found. Likewise, personal control and interpersonal control and avoidant coping had moderate positive correlations. However, no relationship was found between a desire for decisive control and avoidance. Finally, as expected, correlations between preparation and preventative control and indecisiveness and vigilant coping were found. DISCUSSION The purpose of this study was to examine the associations of academic procrastination, perfectionism, and control with vigilant and avoidant coping. Overall, our findings were consistent with our hypotheses, though most relationships were weak. Positive perfectionism was associated with both coping styles. A generalized desire for control was associated with avoidant coping and, as expected, a need for preparatory and preventative control was significantly associated with vigilance. Vigilance was consistent in its association with all variables as hypothesized. Surprisingly, the data indicated a negative correlation of procrastination with avoidant coping. What is avoidant coping and how can we understand these current findings? If, as Krohne (1989, 1993) proposes, avoidance is prompted by an intolerance of arousal, then the pattern of relations between these variables provides some plausible answers. According to Paulhus (1983) perceived control in various spheres is associated with perceived personal efficacy. Burger (1990), while examining individual differences in the desire for control (DC) in conversations, found that low-DC people were less willing than high-DC people to reveal intimate information that might make them feel vulnerable. High-DC individuals were not passive. In fact, under experimental conditions they tended to initiate conversations to maintain control and set the pace of disclosure. In daily living (rather than experimental) conditions, high-DC subjects were more reserved interpersonally and less likely to initiate interactions. Thus, efforts to moderate levels of arousal appear to be central in linking various types of controlling behavior.

Burns et al.



The belief that others can and do hold negative views of oneself is associated with the pervasive fear of possible negative evaluation by others leading to negative feelings. This is based, in part, on a sense of limited self-efficacy. This is the very antithesis of perceived control, yet it prompts a strong desire for exactly thatcontrol. In our data, negative perfectionism had a positive correlation with the generalized desire for control and a strong negative correlation with interpersonal control or interpersonal efficacy. This makes sense because negative perfectionism is conceptually and empirically associated with Hewitt and Fletts (1991) Socially Prescribed Perfectionism (Mitchelson & Burns, 1998). Many of the items used in the Negative Perfection Scale are derived from Hewitt and Fletts subscale (Terry-Short et al., 1995). The relationships between negative perfectionism and control set the stage for understanding the negative relationship between academic procrastination and avoidant coping. In the academic situation expectations are usually explicit and standards of performance are clear. Individuals with higher levels of efficacy and a strong aversion for anxiety or other types of negative arousal, especially in situations in which the opportunity for personal control is perceived, will become, as did the subjects in Burgers (1990) studies, active initiators. Thus, avoidant copers may be proactive specifically to avoid the negative sequelae of procrastination. Given that academic procrastination was conceptualized in terms of a diffuse avoidant identity, it was hypothesized that procrastination would be positively correlated with an avoidance coping style. Surprising enough, this was not so. In retrospect, this can be explained by using self-ideal discrepancy theory as related to precautionary behavior. The choice to take precautionary action is known to depend upon several factors. Most salient here is that not only must there be a belief in the effectiveness of the behavior, but there must also be a belief in ones own capacity to perform that behavior (Norris, 1997). Therefore from a theoretical perspective one would expect those who procrastinate to show a lack of belief in the effectiveness of preventive measures, have expectancies of performance they feel they cannot achieve, or low selfefficacy (see also Senecal et al., 1995). It has previously been noted that scores on the personal and interpersonal subscales of the Spheres of Control scale are highly related to selfefficacy. The fact that scores on these subscales and avoidance were positively correlated indicates that avoidance as a trait is likely to be related to self-efficacy. Additionally, negative perfectionism is predicated upon a limited self-efficacy. Thus the negative correlation of avoidance with negative perfectionism once again indicates avoidance is



related positively to self-efficacy. Besides this, since negative perfectionism measures sensitivity to negative outcomes, failure to succeed, and criticism by others, a lack of precautionary behavior should be positively correlated with it. The negative correlation of avoidance with negative perfectionism makes sense then since avoidance in this study was also correlated negatively with procrastination. Given these findings, avoidance would not be correlated positively to procrastination. It should be noted that academic procrastination may differ from general or trait procrastination in significant ways. Situational, rather than general, procrastination tendencies may account for these findings and caution must be used in presuming similar results would be found with daily or chronic types of procrastination. It can be noted however, that along with Lays (1986) work, Milgram et al. (1993) and Milgram and Naamans (1996) findings suggest moderate overlap, at the least, of these two types of procrastination. Generalizing these findings, it can be hypothesized that, in part, those who procrastinate should show some degree of either learned helplessness, unrealistically high standards they feel they cannot achieve, or low self-efficacy in their ability to achieve even moderate or simple goals. Certainly the findings support the notion that avoidance is not necessarily maladaptive. This agrees with other research (Suls and Fletcher, 1985). Procrastination from a coping perspective can be seen as an emotion focused response to anxiety created by a low expectancy of self-efficacy or success (see also Bridges & Roig, 1997). In future research to determine whether avoidance is functionally adaptive in individuals, the role of self-efficacy as a differentiating variable between adaptive avoidance (proactive problem engaged coping) or maladaptive avoidance (procrastination or repressive escape behavior) ought to be explored. REFERENCES
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