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Laziness Does Not Exist

Sloth (public domain from Flickr Commons)This is a refreshing article from E Price, a social psychologist, who makes an obvious and self-evident point that is far too often forgotten: that there are always underlying reasons for what we perceive as laziness. This quote sums it up:

"People do not choose to fail or disappoint. No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them, or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Look harder."

I suspect that we don't address the issue as much as we should because people with problems (i.e. all of us, in one way or another) usually make our lives more difficult. In fact, that's pretty much what we mean by 'lazy' - if inaction has no harmful effects, then it is just relaxation. It seems to me, therefore, that 'laziness' characterizes a harmful effect, whether on self or others, rather than being a psychological characteristic of a person. Laziness is not a state of mind: it is a harmful effect of any number of different states of mind.

If someone is not doing what is expected of them, whether in work, study, or play, it normally makes our own lives more difficult. In the workplace this is usually pretty obvious: if someone is not working as much as they should, everyone else has to work more in order to compensate. It might not always be so clear cut, though. For instance, a lazy student might sometimes reduce our workload as teachers because we don't have to mark work that is not submitted, and we don't have to engage with a student that fails to show up. To be fair, it is almost as common that laziness means we have to engage in lengthy and traumatic plagiarism proceedings, because we make the stakes so high and the motivation so extrinsic that a fair number of students take shortcuts to the mark, rather than face the traumas of learning in the ways we insist they should learn. But, whether or not it reduces our workload, it still affects us deeply because, if a student is failing, we have failed. The fact that they are the ones that receive the 'F' is a consequence of a stupid power relationship that institutionally absolves us of virtually all responsibility for our own failure, but the fact remains that a failing student is also a failed student, and no one likes to fail. If we were truly great teachers, none of our students would ever fail, so a student that fails is a clear sign that we are not truly great. Maybe it's because we are too lazy.



  • Samson Mihirette October 19, 2018 - 8:01pm

    Hmmmm, interesting article.  What makes us not to go to the gym assuming that we have free time to spare.  I am trying hard to find a plausable explanation for some people including myself.  Sometimes I prefer to watch a useless TV show instead of going out of my house and just cross the road to enter to the gym and do stuff that are useful for my health.... Maybe we are too lazy.

  • Jon Dron October 19, 2018 - 9:45pm

    Whoever solves that one will deserve a Nobel prize, Samson. Actually, of course, there are already plenty of answers, and someone has won exactly that Nobel prize, for Prospect Theory, at least partly out of which has grown the much more interesting and broad-ranging field of behavioural economics. This is a nice, very brief, but unfortunately paywalled, overview of some predictions and suggestions from that about how and why to improve motivation to do more exercise (free access here for AU students and staff, with AU login required). I like behavioural economics because you can use it directly as a tool though, like many tools, it can be used well or badly or indifferently, so what you make with it requires skill, creativity, and ingenuity. There are vastly many more ways to use it than the ones described in this short paper: a Google search on behavioural economics exercise reveals dozens of academic works as well as many more popular/populist sites and videos. I hope this sparks some ideas for you!

    I've found the ideas of framing, anchoring, loss aversion, defaults and other outcrops of the theories and models in the field incredibly useful in my teaching, though I am a bit worried about a slight hint of behaviourism lurking behind a little of the research, where ways of doing things are recommended because they seem to work, but the reasons behind that are either vague, at a very broad and abstract level, or unstated. Behavioural economics certainly doesn't explain everything about motivation but it still makes a useful toolset.

  • Steve Swettenham October 20, 2018 - 3:39am

    Is it possible to replace "lazy" with +/- motivation combined with Peter Sandman's formula of "Risk = Hazard + Outrage" (

    Assuming an association between "lazy" and level of action, then if there is no perceived risk, why would an elevated action (from inaction) be required? Hence, no risk, no action, nor motivation to action.

    Perhaps systemic drivers to action? (e.g.

  • Samson Mihirette October 20, 2018 - 7:29am

    It all comes down to motivation. Thanks Jon  for sending the info about behavioral economics. I will definitely explore the online materials.

  • Jon Dron October 20, 2018 - 6:32pm

    @Steve - at a quick glance I don't quite see how, though it certainly adds expanatory richness, and I'm intrigued by the formula and the thinking behind it. I'll try to find out more about it. Thanks for that.

    @Samson - it's a useful set of ideas and theories, and it dovetails nicely with my favourite (and arguably by far the best validated and most reliable) theory of motivation,  self-determination theory, which helps to explain how intrinsic motivation arises, and the effects of different kinds of extrinsic motivation, amongst other things. With that in mind, I wonder whether you are framing exercise as a chore, or a means to an end, or a duty, rather than something that reflects who you want to be, or even something that might actually be great fun (I bet some of it is but I also bet some things feel like obstacles)?