Some people are always late. You probably know someone who just never shows up when you want them to, armed with an excuse when they finally appear 20 minutes later.
Maybe it’s you who has the problem, and no matter how many alarms and reminders you set, you just can’t help but leave the house after the time you were supposed to be at an agreed location.
Plenty of research has gone into trying to figure out why some of us are like this.
According to human behaviour writer and lecturer Alfie Kohn in a blog post on Psychology Today, saying these people are “inconsiderate” is accurate, but it doesn’t provide a reason behind the tardiness.
Kohn suggests a couple of reasons why people could be chronically late — perhaps they enjoy the attention of making an entrance, or maybe they are too self involved and wrapped up in their own lives and needs to care that they make people wait.
However, he notes this can’t apply to those who are so late for everything they dramatically inconvenience themselves. For example, they miss flights or get shut out of events they really wanted to attend. While some people check the clock every so often when a deadline is coming up, Kohn suggests some people aren’t so great at doing this.
“Perhaps they have a tendency to lose themselves in whatever they’re currently doing and don’t discover what time it is until it’s too late,” he wrote.
The way we are wired to manage time could be to blame
A study from 2016 by Washington University psychologists Emily Waldun and Mark McDaniel looked into this theory, and described it as Time-Based Prospective Memory (TBPM.) In an experiment, they gave subjects a set time to complete a task, with the advantage of being able to check a clock. It was set up in such a way that participants would likely get caught up in the tasks, such as a jigsaw puzzle, and be too preoccupied to check the time. From the results, it was clear some people were better time estimators than others.
This is similar to when you get engrossed in an activity like scrolling through Instagram or reading the news. You might be on your bed with five minutes to spare before you need to leave for work. However, while you think only five minutes have passed, you could have let 20 minutes slip by.
According to Dr Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, people who are good at TBPM tasks appear to be better at regulating their own timekeeping behaviour. She wrote in a blog post on Psychology Today that it’s important to be able to gauge the amount of time something might take.
For instance, you might be able to use Google Maps to estimate the time it takes to get somewhere, but you can’t account for everything along the way, like a conversation with someone you bump into, or your train being slightly delayed. Your plan can be solid, but still fail in reality.
Or it could just be your personality
Whitbourne says Freudian psychologists may believe excessive tardiness boils down to people having self-destructive tendencies, leaving them trapped in a cycle of being late and punishing themselves for it. Kohn also argues it could simply come down to a lack of self-discipline, where people find it impossible to pull themselves away from an activity they’re enjoying or a task they feel they have to complete.
Psychologist and writer Adoree Durayappah-Harrison explains in a blog post on Psychology Today that for some people, being late just beats the alternative. Some people just don’t like to be early. Sometimes it is just inefficient to be hanging around for someone before they arrive, or they might feel awkward or uncomfortable waiting. There’s also social faux pas to be aware of, such as the understanding that nobody shows up for a dinner party that starts at 7 p.m. bang on 7 p.m.
There’s also another way to look at it. A New York Times article suggests consistent lateness is driven by optimism — for example, the ability to believe a 25-minute commute will only take 10 minutes, if everything goes in your favour. In a blog post on Wait But Why analysing this theory, popular writer Tim Urban calls this behaviour “insanity,” which is a fair point.
Either way, there are many reasons that could explain why people are late all the time. If you can narrow down your own personal culprit, you might be able to snap out of the habit — unless you don’t want to.
Lindsay Dodgson is a reporter at Business Insider UK.
This article appeared in The Business Insider on 4 April 2017