Are You a 'Pre-Crastinator'?


You’ve no doubt heard of procrastination. You might be procrastinating right now by reading this story. But have you met procrastination’s cousin, “pre-crastination”?

The term was recently coined by researchers from Penn State University, who define it as “the inclination to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting things done sooner rather than later.”

Pre-crastinators are compelled to check things off their to-do list ASAP, whether or not the job is well done, according to research by psychology professor David Rosenbaum and Cory Potts, a graduate student.

The researchers came to this conclusion after studying the economics of effort. They asked participants to carry one of two buckets a certain distance. One bucket was closer to the subject, and the other closer to the finish line. They wondered whether people would naturally pick up the bucket they could carry the least—that is, the one closer to the finish line. That required the least amount of effort.

But to their surprise, that’s not what many participants did. “We got instead this strange thing where they were frequently picking up the closer of the two buckets,” Potts explains to mental_floss. Over and over, in a series of nine experiments involving 250 participants, many people chose the bucket closest to them and carried it all the way to the finish line, increasing the amount of effort they had to expend. Why?

“‘I wanted to get it done more quickly,’” Potts says these participants reported. But there was no reason for them to believe that picking up the closer bucket would get the job done faster. They had to walk the same distance regardless.

We see real-life examples of pre-crastination all the time. “People answer emails immediately rather than carefully contemplating their replies,” explains Rosenbaum in Scientific American. “And, people grab items when they first enter the grocery store, carry them to the back of the store, pick up more groceries at the back, and then return to the front of the store to pay and exit, thus toting the items farther than necessary.”

Rosenbaum and Potts speculate that our pre-crastination tendencies are rooted in evolution. (In other experiments they ran, pigeons proved to be pre-crastinators too.) One theory is that getting things done quickly frees up part of our working memory, making room for other more demanding tasks. Or perhaps it’s a remnant of our need to take whatever we can while it’s available—a sort of “low-hanging fruit” approach.

But maybe the answer is even simpler, Potts says. Checking things off a to-do list just feels good, no matter how trivial the task. How many times have you put on your to-do list something that’s easy to accomplish just so you could cross it off?

Wait, so now we have to worry about not getting things done too late or too early? Actually, Rosenbaum and Potts say these two forces can work together. “Break larger tasks into smaller ones,” Rosenbaum says. “Such smaller tasks, when completed, will promote a sense of accomplishment, will bring one closer to the final goal, and, via trial-and-error learning, may support the discovery of even more adaptive or innovative ways of behaving.”

And we admire pre-crastinators. “Finishing tasks quickly gets you a reputation as being a conscientious person,” Potts says.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.