Why People Procrastinate on Paying the IRS (According to Science)

Spring delivers beautiful weather, but also the dark cloud of tax season. Many taxpayers hold off on completing their returns for as long as possible, which is odd, because data from the IRS indicate that the vast majority of those who file tax returns receive refunds. Why procrastinate when filing means receiving a significant refund check? Detailed below are a few reasons people delay in paying the IRS — backed up by science.

Limbic System Versus Prefrontal Cortex

In most cases, delaying paying the IRS taxes comes down to a simple battle of the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. These are the same regions of the brain that duke it out when you’re tempted to watch Netflix instead of visiting the gym, or when you’re trying to choose between carrots and carrot cake. The limbic system is home to the brain’s pleasure center, and the prefrontal cortex is all about delayed gratification. The prefrontal cortex may promise a lucrative tax return, but the limbic system’s immediate reward of not muddling through taxes typically wins out, mainly because this section of the brain is far stronger. At one time, a strong limbic system was an asset, but in an age of easy gratification, it’s more of a burden.


Often, procrastination to paying the IRS is sparked by anxiety. Those with perfectionist tendencies cannot stomach the idea of turning in a tax return that is less than perfect, so they don’t bother completing their taxes at all. Instead of relieving anxiety, procrastination causes additional stress, leaving taxpayers feeling overwhelmed. Millennials are particularly prone to tax-related anxiety; in a NerdWallet study, 80 percent of Millennials claimed to worry about their tax returns.

When It’s All About Money

Delaying paying the IRS is never a good idea, but in some cases, there’s at least a somewhat rational reason behind the procrastination. The 15 percent of taxpayers who actually pay in owe an average of approximately $6,000 each year. Combine the dread of paying thousands of dollars with the brain’s natural inclination to procrastinate, and it’s easy to see why so many people are so reluctant to complete their tax returns.

Call Our Office

Tax-induced procrastination is a normal phenomenon, but it need not turn the first half of April into a stressful ordeal. Call 720-398-6088 to learn more about our Denver, Colorado tax help services, and help paying the IRS.