Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Laziness

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What is laziness and how can we become less lazy?

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter focuses on defining wikipedia:Laziness, the causes of laziness and how to become less lazy. In order to know how to become less lazy, an understanding of what laziness is and the causes are required. Knowing the psychological definition of laziness, and the cause of individual laziness, allows for each individual to apply theory to their experience, and ultimately become less lazy. Also important is the distinction between laziness and procrastination, as they are often misconceived as the same.

Learning outcomes

This chapter addresses the following learning outcomes:

  • Accurate definition of laziness
  • Difference between laziness and procrastination
  • The Biopsychosocial causes of laziness
  • How to become less lazy

What is laziness?[edit | edit source]

Case study: Introduction

Josh lives at home. He is currently studying psychology and works part-time at Rebel Sport. Josh's only expense is his car, so he only works 5 hours per week, giving him lots of free time to do his studies. Josh finds himself watching hours and hours of YouTube each day. He knows he needs to study, but says he cannot be bothered to leave his bed. His Dad is always complaining that he is so lazy and has been his whole life, only getting worse as his schedule is now flexible[grammar?].

Figure 1. Visualization of a couch potato

Everyone has been called lazy, felt lazy or been lazy at some point in their life. Laziness is a layman’s term to describe someone who appears to be unmotivated, who is not progressing in daily life and does not seem to do productive or beneficial activities. People who are seen as lazy are often low in effort and drive, seen as “couch potatoes” [grammar?] (Figure 1). But what does the term laziness actually mean? People use the term to internally attribute another’s factors of behaviour (Madsen, 2018). So someone who seemingly wastes away their life with unproductive attitudes and behaviours would be considered lazy. People use the term to define individuals who are not acting or performing as expected due to internal causes controlled by themselves, such as individual effort (Madsen, 2018). Laziness is often attributed to numerous groups and individuals, such as unemployed, homeless, students, depressed individuals, and many more (Madsen, 2018). There is little empathy given to these individuals, especially toward those who are unemployed, as they are perceived as genuinely able to work and get a job, but simply choose not to (Madsen, 2018). Despite these layman’s definitions of laziness, research on the matter is limited. The concept of laziness is difficult to examine due to the nature of absence, as laziness is the lack of activity or action (Madsen, 2018). The concept does connect personal experience to a range of societal norms, values, and circumstances. Society deems what laziness looks like, and has for many generations.

Figure 2. Visual representation of a sloth

Laziness in western society originated as acedia, the Latin term for “without care”, which is translated to English as sloth (Jones, 2015). Sloth connotes laziness or indolence and is often viewed as the mammal animal which lazes about (Jones, 2015). However, the term sloth has deeper roots in western society, going back to the seven deadly sins of Catholicism (Jones, 2015). From the Catholic definition, sloth is seen as having components of lack of feeling towards self or others, self-pity with melancholy of condition and self-centeredness of expression. Acedia (sloth) is deemed an omission of desire and performance, meaning man is taken away from God and productivity of good deeds (Jones, 2015). In biblical times, being lazy was seen as a self-centred way of life, where you were not contributing to the household or community. In psychosocial literature, the term is associated with anomie, boredom, melancholy, or depression (Jones, 2015). As acedia (sloth) is the root of laziness, there is little apathy towards life goals.

Multiple studies have been conducted as to what laziness is and how it is expressed in individuals. From the early 20th century, low academic performance was deemed as an expression of moral shortcomings occurring from laziness and lack of responsibility. This theory sparked Alfred Binet to develop the metric intelligence scale, set out to measure whether a student has "intellectual problems", to reduce moral biases for students having difficulty, providing them with the help they need (Madsen, 2018). This also filtered out those students who were actually lazy from those who are making an effort to the best of their ability. These studies often found that a lack of motivation was the driving force for laziness, determining that uninteresting tasks produce laziness (Madsen, 2018).

Figure 3. A visualisation of the three elements constituting the definition of laziness

The common-sense definition of laziness suggests that a person is lazy when they have the ability to do well on a certain task or activity but chooses not to do so as they cannot be bothered. Three elements constituting laziness are proposed by Madsen (2018):

  1. Individual’s performance (in a school test or looking for work);
  2. An individual’s (perceived) abilities, and/or prerequisites and/or difficulty of the task in question; and
  3. An individual’s (perceived) motivation and/or effort in a given task.

This is represented in figure 3. When all three elements are aligned, acceptable performance is achieved. However, if one or more elements are removed due to laziness, there is a lack of performance. In common day[say what?], laziness is not always a bad thing. Society is so fast-paced we often do not have time to breathe, let alone stop and rest (Cross, 2005). Often the feeling of laziness is our body’s way of saying that you need to stop and recover, as working yourself into the ground will inevitably make you unwell and experience burnout (Cross, 2005).

What is the difference between laziness and procrastination?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Procrastination can be the manifestation of laziness, often associated with boredom

The terms laziness and procrastination are often combined into one conceptual field, as they have similar features. The terms are used interchangeably as they both involve reluctance to complete a task. To define the two separately, the best way to view the difference is: procrastination is the act of postponing a difficult or time-consuming task you should be doing, in favour of an easier and often more entertaining task, whereas laziness is the lack of motivation to do any task, an unwillingness to act (Senecal et al., 1995). People who procrastinate have reported personality flaws as the underlying cause. Senecal and colleagues (1995) reported the main personality flaw contributing to procrastination was indeed laziness, however, procrastination can also lead to the manifestation of laziness (Figure 4) (Senecal et al., 1995).

What causes laziness?[edit | edit source]

With an understanding of what laziness is, we move on to look at the causes of laziness. Willpower, engagement, and busyness all contribute to the basic understanding of laziness causes. Willpower is the ability to change modes of reactions in terms of self-control and self-regulation (Cross, 2005). It is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet the longer-term goals, such as resisting oversleeping in order to get an assignment finished and submitted on time (Cross, 2005). With weak willpower, individuals often succumb to the temptations of easier, less strain invoking tasks (Cross, 2005). Disengagement has similar effects, as individuals are less likely to put in effort when the tasks are not interesting or applicable to their needs and desires (Cross, 2005). Busyness is also a contributing factor to laziness (Cross, 2005). Laziness can sometimes be good, as the body expresses laziness as a sign to slow down and rest, known as rational laziness (Cross, 2005). Being constantly busy with a tight schedule leaves little room for recovery, causing burnout when we do not listen to our body’s pleas for rest. Busyness can cause a reversal effect on motivation, where productivity declines due to overwork.

Figure 5. Biopsychosocial Model of Health

In a study conducted by Maximets (2019) on self-assessment of personal laziness and causes, the results showed only 20% of participants viewed themselves as lazy, while the other 80% viewed themselves as hardworking. The most important determinants of laziness (in 83% of individuals) were physical and psychological state features such as tiredness, desire to rest, drowsiness, no mood, poor state of feeling, boredom and other negative emotional states (Maximets, 2019). Other factors determining laziness such as lack of opportunity, lack of interest, and external pressure were found to be less important and cause personal laziness only in single cases (Maximets, 2019). The study found that opportunity deficits were attributed to personal determinants of laziness. The differences in perceived laziness between sexes were also studied (Maximets, 2019). Male laziness is perceived by the individual as feelings of unwillingness, apathy, inaction, and focus toward the inner world and feelings (Maximets, 2019). Female laziness is conditioned by situations, further demonstrated by outward orientation, responsibility, and feelings of guilt (Maximets, 2019).

When looking to determine the causes of laziness, exploration of the biopsychosocial model (Figure 5) is required, as these three aspects play an important role in determining why someone is attributed as lazy (Boydell et al., 2003).

Biological perspective[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Visualisation of location of the anterior insula in the human brain
Figure 7. Visual representation of forebrain and striatum

The act of being lazy is often attributed to physical inactivity, where decreased motivation to participate and be productive is prevalent. Decreased motivation is caused by overstimulation or excessive impulses or distractions, which increase dopamine release (Treadway et al., 2012). Dopamine is responsible for reward and pleasure, however the more dopamine released, the greater intolerance for valuing and accepting productive and rewarding action (Martins et al., 2020). This desensitization leads to the dulling of neural patterns, negatively affecting the anterior insula (Figure 6), which is responsible for risk perception (Martins et al., 2020). Research by Treadway and colleagues (2012) found a correlation between dopamine in three different brain regions, which determines if a person is productive or lazy. One of these three regions is the anterior insula, which has a strong negative relationship between dopamine levels and willingness to work hard (Treadway et al., 2012). Individuals who have high dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex (Figure 7) (known to play an important role in reward and motivation), and low levels in the anterior insula (region linked to motivation and risk perception), are often go-getters as opposed to procrastinators (Treadway et al., 2012). For people who are apathetic, the premotor cortex fired paradoxically more than in go-getters, therefore brain connections responsible for the jump from decisions to actions is less effective in the apathetic, meaning the brain has to work harder for lazy people (Treadway et al., 2012). Simply put, an action takes more energy to plan, therefore making it more costly to the individual.

Alternative to dopamine research, laziness has also been found to be the expression of certain medical conditions. People who are often tired, overwhelmed, exhausted, unmotivated etc. have been found to have blood or thyroid disorders (Louwerens et al., 2012). Thyroid problems can then cause diabetes, anaemia, sleep apnoea, heart disease, or even fibromyalgia (Louwerens et al., 2012).

Psychological perspective[edit | edit source]

Laziness can manifest as a negative coping mechanism toward engagement in multiple activities, causing behavioural problems such as attention failure, perfectionism, and pessimism (Heatherton & Vohs, 2000). As an avoidant behaviour, laziness is used for preventing preconceived bad results, and the acting out of archetypes from societal programming and negative child-rearing practices (Heatherton & Vohs, 2000). Having experienced a negative outcome previously, laziness is often the subconscious mind's way of entering a preservation mode to reduce the likelihood of negative emotions such as fear, shame, harm, disappointment, or rejection (Gilmore & Boulton-Lewis, 2009). During the preservation mode, the ability to challenge and motivate oneself is lacking, therefore achievement of goals is drastically reduced (Gilmore & Boulton-Lewis, 2009). Psychological wellbeing is key to motivation, however, when experiencing negative self-talk, the mind is too preoccupied with fighting internal battles to recognise the needs of the outside world. Laziness has been shown to render one apathetic toward reactant mental health issues such as anger, anxiety, indifference, substance abuse, and depression (Heatherton & Vohs, 2000). Additionally, being misinterpreted as lazy leads to low self-esteem, anxiety, behaviour problems, and social difficulty (Heatherton & Vohs, 2000). Laziness is more than idleness, inactivity, or even sluggishness, it is a psychological problem that requires a psychological solution. Laziness often stems from extrinsically motivated activities, where the reward does not outweigh the cost of mental energy (Senecal et al., 1995). Intrinsic rewards often require less mental energy, in addition to providing the reward of authentic enjoyment (Senecal et al., 1995).

Whilst discussing psychological causes of laziness, it is important to acknowledge the misconception around learning disabilities. Often children who suffer from learning disabilities are labelled lazy, as they are perceived to be lacking effort (Delaney et al., 2015). This is rarely the case, as children born with learning disabilities struggle with cognitive conditions affecting their functional ability to learn in the same environment as their other classmates (Delaney et al., 2015).

Social perspective[edit | edit source]

There are many social theories on causes of laziness, but the most prevalent and researched in social loafing. Social loafing is the act of exerting less effort in a task for goal achievement during group work, compared to the effort that would be exerted when working alone (Ying et al., 2014). The theory of social loafing stems from the individual’s perception of self, where they believe their particular participation is less important and therefore does not matter for group success (Ying et al., 2014). As a social psychological phenomenon, social loafing often occurs in groups ranging from three or more members, with severely decreased participation mainly ranging between group numbers of three to eight, with no drastic effects as numbers increase over eight members (Ying et al., 2014). This is also called group laziness, as being in a group often creates a false sense of completion. Known as the free-rider effect, it is the belief that no matter the amount of effort you put in, you will still reap the rewards.

Other social factors causing laziness are found to correlate with psychological factors, such as external attributions of laziness that other people have made about you. There is a level of self-confirming bias addressed here, where self-discrepancy theory explains these attributions as causing psychological harm, especially when one does not perceive themselves as lazy (Strauman, 1996).

Case study: Causes

Josh's family has always attributed his laziness to internal motives, saying he is never motivated to do anything, and that's his choice. His family is unaware that Josh is currently suffering from self-esteem issues, constantly comparing his body shape and size to that of his mates. He is not as muscular as his work colleagues at Rebel Sport, and constantly seeing very fit people shopping in-store has him very self-conscious.

How do we become less lazy?[edit | edit source]

Laziness is a part of life that is often hard to combat, taking the easy road is often preferable to using energy and effort for the harder, yet more rewarding task. We often hear phrases like “stop being lazy and get a move on”, or “just try harder” from the people who perceive us as being lazy due to internal effort (Gilmore & Boulton-Lewis, 2009). But is being less lazy ever that simple? Laziness is rooted in more than lack of motivation, there are other factors contributing to the likelihood of someone being attributed as lazy. The important part of overcoming laziness is to address motivation, and how different modes of motivation will combat laziness.

There are multiple strategies that can address how to become less lazy, including manageable goals, healthy diets, avoiding distraction, exercise, sleep and rest, and stress management (Gilmore & Boulton-Lewis, 2009). However, there is lack of empirical support for many of these appraoches and they ultimately support the “just try harder” concept.

Laziness is often the result of burnout or perfectionism. Burnout occurs when an individual exerts their efforts past their energy threshold, ultimately not giving themselves enough time to rest and recover (Cross, 2005). Recognizing that your body is requesting recovery can be hard, but our minds need time to process the fast-paced information of the 21st century. Additionally, perfectionism can also contribute to laziness, where tasks are likely to be started later from fear of failure (Cross, 2005).

Figure 8. Self-discrepancy theory as devised by Higgins (1987). Depicts how the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal and/or ought self can have negative consequences.

Therefore, it is important to understand what motivates us, and how these motivations reduce the act of being lazy. Multiple different motivational theories have arisen over the past 100 plus years, and ultimately can all be applied to this case. However, self-discrepancy theory (Figure 8) is one of the most applicable. Self-discrepancy theory is based on the idea that an individual possesses three selves, an actual, ideal and ought (Strauman, 1996). Discrepancies between these selves cause internal conflicts, often resulting in decreased mental capabilities (Strauman, 1996). Often, people who are labelled as lazy experience these discrepancies, as their ideal selves are unreachable, and their ought selves are unobtainable (Strauman, 1996). Whilst we are often unable to change our ought selves, our ideals are within our control. The ideal self is an image we portray of productivity and achievement that we wish to obtain. A motivational tip to decrease laziness is to make our ideal selves a more realistic model, and add stepping stones to achieving this self, as explained by goal theory (Wright, 2007). Lists often help motivate people, especially if they contain obtainable tasks that are moderately challenging (e.g., a list for cleaning the house that contains a checklist, such as vacuum carpet, wipe benchtops, etc.). Creating these small obtainable goals will give the individual satisfaction to continue motivation towards achieving the bigger goals (Wright, 2007). Having these achievements helps to combat self-esteem issues, one of the main causes of laziness. Having a support system will also assist in helping you remain on task, in addition to checklists and small victories (Wright, 2007). Allowing others to share in your experience is a great external motivator, as reassurance and encouragement can help us develop greater resiliency (Wright, 2007).

The difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators may be the cause of laziness. Self-determination theory, as proposed by Deci and Ryan, amplifies the importance of remaining intrinsically motivated, as when external motivators are introduced, people believe they are performing the activity not because they want to, but for the external reward (Vallerand et al., 1993). By using internalization (where external rewards are turned into internal rewards) the activity becomes important to the individual, and personally valuing an activity decreases the likelihood of lazy behaviour, providing greater autonomy and self-initiation (Vallerand et al., 1993). When people have autonomous motivation, they are more likely to show more initiative, ultimately experiencing greater enjoyment and positive emotions (Vallerand et al., 1993). When we enjoy a task, laziness is drastically reduced as the endorphin rush outweighs the mental strain of participation and completion (Senecal et al., 1995).

Self-efficacy theory takes motivation one step further, ultimately providing the foundations for motivation, well-being, and personal accomplishment (Bandura & Adams, 1977). Self-efficacy theory is defined by Albert Bandura as people’s beliefs in their capabilities to control events and their own functioning in their lives (Bandura & Adams, 1977). Self-efficacy theory is a subset of social cognitive theory, where perceived self-efficacy and outcome expectancies (i.e., positive or negative outcome of behaviour) are what determines the likelihood of action (Bandura & Adams, 1977) Self-efficacy is the theory that if we put our mind to something, we will be able to do it, provided we view the outcome as being positive (Bandura & Adams, 1977). Having confidence in our ability to complete a task will ultimately combat any negative self-talk, one of the key psychological causes of laziness.

Case study: solutions

Josh has decided that enough is enough. He is sick of turning in assignments late and getting bad grades. With the help of a little research, Josh has set up a weekly planner and each day he sets three goals for himself. Being able to tick off each activity gives Josh the motivation to continue on and get the big tick for a day complete. Having started his assignments early, Josh finds he is enjoying his studies again, and each day looks forward to doing more study. Being productive with his studies has boosted his confidence, and Josh is making healthier life choices, through a good diet and exercise daily.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Whilst laziness seems to be a negative activity, the root cause is often misinterpreted. Laziness, whilst being the act of idleness, is caused by deeper problems, as proposed by the biopsychosocial model. Exploring these causes creates the ability to become less lazy, as disclosed by theories of self-discrepancy, self-efficacy, and self-determination. Therefore, laziness can be cured through different motivators, such as to-do lists, internal motivators, and viewing the outcome of action as positive.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bandura, A., Adams, N. E. (1977). Analysis of self-efficacy theory of behavioural change. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(4), 287-310.

Boydell, K. M., Gladstone, B. M., & Volpe, T. (2003). Interpreting narratives of motivation and schizophrenia: a biopsychosocial understanding. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 26(4), 422–426.

Cross, G. S. (2005). A right to be lazy? Busyness in retrospective. Social Research, 72(2), 263–286. Retrieved August 28, 2021,

Dautov, D. (2020). Procrastination and laziness rates among students with different academic performance as an organizational problem. E3S Web of Conferences, 210, 1-10.

Delaney, A., Radke, C., & Zimmerle, K. (2016). Are academic struggles the cause of a learning disability or laziness?. The Undergraduate Journal of Law and Disorder, 5, 14–20.

Gilmore, L., & Boulton-Lewis, G. (2009). ‘Just try harder and you will shine’: a study of 20 lazy children. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 19(2), 95-103. DOI:10.1375/ajgc.19.2.95

Heatherton, T. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2000). Interpersonal evaluations following threats to self: role of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 725–736.

Jones, C. D. (2015). “The midday demon”: a moral, theological, & biopsychosocial analysis of acedia. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing

Madsen, T. (2018). The conception of laziness and the characterisation of others as lazy. Human Arenas, 1, 288-304.

Martins, L. C. G., Lopes, M. V. de O., Diniz, C. M., & Guedes, N. G. (2021). The factors related to a sedentary lifestyle: A meta‐analysis review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 77(3), 1188–1205.

Maximets, S. M. (2019). Determination of personal and situation determinants laziness. Herald of Kiev Institute of Business and Technology, 42(4), 115–119.

Mishna, F., Muskat, B., & Wiener, J. (2010). “I’m not lazy; it’s just that I learn differently”: development and Implementation of a manualized school-based group for students with learning disabilities. Social Work with Groups, 33(2-3), 139–159.

Senécal, C., Koestner, R., & Vallerand, R. J. (1995). Self-regulation and academic procrastination. The Journal of Social Psychology, 135(5), 607–619.

Strauman, T. J. (1996). Stability within the self: a longitudinal study of the structural implications of self-discrepancy theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(6), 1142–1153.

Treadway, M. T., Buckholtz, J. W., Cowan, R. L., Woodward, N. D., Li, R., Ansari, M. S., Baldwin, R. M., Schwartzman, A. N., Kessler, R. M., & Zald, D. H. (2012). Dopaminergic mechanisms of individual differences in human effort-based decision-making. The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(18), 6170–6176.

Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., Blais, M. R., Briere, N. M., Senecal, C., & Vallieres, E. F. (1993). On the assessment of intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation in education: evidence on the concurrent and construct validity of the academic motivation scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 53(1), 159–172.

Wright, B. E. (2007). Public service and motivation: does mission matter? Public Administration Review, 67(1), 54–64.

Ying, X., Li, H., Jiang, S., Peng, F., & Lin, Z. (2014). Group laziness: the effect of social loafing on group performance. Social Behaviour and Personality, 42(3), 465–471.

External links[edit | edit source]