Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Stuart Shanker D.Phil.
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Why Is My Child So Mentally Lazy?

“Lazy” or “limbic”?

Sammi Shanker, used with permission
Source: Sammi Shanker, used with permission

I once made a catalogue of the most common parental laments around schoolwork, and at the top of the list were “Why won’t my child try in Math (or science, French, or history…)?” “Why can’t I get him to study for exams?” And my personal favourite: “What on earth possesses my child to randomly circle answers on a test and not care in the least about failing?”

Traditionally we’ve looked at what’s going on here as a motivational problem; which, of course, it is. But goading children to do their schoolwork is tiresome and tiring. And if you rely on bribery, the child ends up completing his assignments in order to get the reward and not for the pleasure of learning something new. What’s more, once the appeal of the incentive wears off you’re in worse shape than when you started [Kohn].

Punishment is equally ineffective. Before you know it you’re both yelling at each other and you’ve ended up selling the TV and getting rid of the Wi-Fi. Trying to have a meaningful conversation about this problem is fruitless; more often than not this turns into desperate plea-bargaining.

Why are so many parents complaining about this problem these days?

This is beginning to look like a full-blown epidemic. But why? Is this a generation who would rather be entertained than learn how to think? Lord knows there are enough distractions around. Or is there some deeper issue at stake: yet another indicator of a generation that is over-stressed?

The distinction between laziness and stress-behaviour is pivotal to Self-Reg, and absolutely critical if we’re going to help these kids – and their parents! – do well at school, and not make the problem worse [Self-Reg].

What we need to get clear on is when a child could and should have tried harder; and when his actions – or the lack thereof! – were the consequence of excessive stress. When it’s a case of the latter, and not the result of a character flaw, we need to figure out what the stresses are and how to reduce them. That is where Self-Reg comes in.

The first step in Self-Reg is always to ask “Why?” Only now when we ask, “Why is my child so mentally lazy?” we mean this, not as a lament, but as the starting-point of genuine inquiry. And recent advances in neuroscience provide us, not just with an answer to this pressing question, but even more important, a guide as to what we can do to make motivational strategies more motivational – or, in many cases, unnecessary!

The key here lies in a fascinating research program in the psychology of decision-making that Dan Kahneman embarked on in the 1960s [Pupil Diameter and Load on Memory], and a model of the brain that the neuroscientist Paul MacLean was developing at the same time [Triune Brain]. Kahneman was looking at “reasoning biases”: the way we use different “heuristics” to simplify decision-making – at least, in the short-run [Heuristics]. The problem is that over the long-haul, reasoning biases can lead to mistakes: often in situations where you wouldn’t think this likely.

One of Kahneman’s favorite examples is the “ball-and-bat” problem:

If a baseball and bat cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Coming up with the answer 10 cents is a classic case of a reasoning bias leading us into error (the correct answer is 5 cents). There are certainly situations where heuristics can be useful: especially when we don’t have time to think. But in cases where we know we should be careful yet still don’t come up with the right answer, we are said to be “ardent followers of the law of least effort.” But is this really a problem that has to do with laziness?

It is striking that so many struggle with this seemingly simple problem. But what is especially interesting is Kahneman’s discovery that all of the subjects who sensed there was something tricky about the question, and tried but failed to solve it, reached a point where they suddenly quit. To be sure, there was considerable variability in how long it took them to get to that point; but they all experienced an “intolerable peak.” When this happened, they quickly settled for the incorrect answer.

What is maybe most fascinating of all is that Kahneman could predict when that point had been reached, solely on the basis of tracking pupil dilation and heart rate. Kahneman was among the first to study how pupils serve as “sensitive indicators of mental effort” [Pupil Diameter and Load on Memory]. But the question that Self-Reg poses is: What happens if you simply remove “mental” from this statement?

The answer lies in the fact that the same phenomena are seen in physical effort [pupil dilation and physical effort]. Ask subjects to squeeze a hand-grip as hard as they can for as long as they can and you can see their pupils grow larger until they reach a point of maximum dilation, and then immediately let go. What this is telling us is that pupil dilation and increased heart-rate are indicators of autonomic arousal, which makes perfect sense vis-à-vis Kahneman’s studies.

The reason is because concentration demands an awful lot of energy, which is why the heart starts pumping. We grit our teeth, clench our jaws, scrunch our foreheads, squeeze our core muscles, breathe more rapidly, start to sweat; and meanwhile, digestion and metabolic processes slow down. In other words, when we concentrate we go into what Ernst Gellhorn called an “ergotropic” state, which was originally designed for hunting and survival, but which we put to use today for figuring out our taxes or how much the ball costs [Gellhorn].

The point is that thinking hard is a “whole body” phenomenon. There is a cascade of changes in brain and body that consume energy and that suppress its renewal, similar to what happens when we hunt (whether it’s a wild animal or a bargain at the Boxing Day sale). And that helps us to understand what, from a Self-Reg perspective, is most striking about Kahneman’s findings: namely, the abrupt manner in which subjects stopped working on the problem.

Kahneman describes this behaviour as an “inverted-V curve.” But why not an inverted-U curve? That is, why do we stop when we find thinking about a problem too hard, rather than gradually give up? This is where MacLean’s evolutionary thesis comes in.

The crux of MacLean’s “Triune” metaphor is the idea that the brain shifts back-and-forth between two neural states: one in which the neocortex is dominant and one where the limbic system runs the show. The neocortex – the newest part of the human brain – supports our “higher” functions: e.g., thinking, language, social cognition, empathy, self-awareness. Among the many functions that the more ancient limbic system supports, particularly important as far as the present topic is concerned is how it enables us to instantly remember people or places that sent us into fight-or-flight, or past occasions where we experienced an “intolerable peak.”

Both of these neural systems will, if unchecked, burn an awful lot of energy: e.g., the energy consumed in hard thinking, or the energy burned in fight-or-flight. But the brain operates in such a way that these two systems, “rational” and “limbic,” operate as a brake on the other: slow the other down before energy reserves are exhausted.

The rational system performs this role via what are known as “cognitive competencies”: e.g., reappraising a stimulus (telling ourselves that we really don’t like the taste of something we crave); self-distracting (whistling in the dark); or best of all, doing Self-Reg! These cognitive skills reduce energy expenditure by reducing stress.

The limbic system serves as a non-cognitive brake on the “rational brain.” We tend to think only of how the limbic system shuts down thinking in emergency situations so that instincts can take over: a primitive reptilian system that provides our most effective protection in dangerous situations where there isn’t time to plan. But the limbic system also acts as a brake when too much energy is being expended on something that is non-threatening: e.g., grappling with a mind-twister, or squeezing a handgrip.

In such cases, the hypothalamus sends a signal that stops that activity. The hypothalamus doesn’t choose to stop us from continuing to work on the ball-and-bat problem. It doesn’t judge that the solution is out of our reach. It operates like a thermostat, shutting down an energy-consuming activity when blood glucose levels drop below a threshold. That’s what we mean when we describe the limbic system as a “non-cognitive” brake.

To be sure, there’s an override mechanism for emergency situations (cortisol is released). But in non-emergency situations – situations in which the Amygdala “alarm” has not been activated – the brakes are only applied to the activity leading to the glucose-depletion. The hypothalamus operates as a thermostat designed by evolution to stop us from, e.g., chasing an animal that the limbic system “remembers” once easily got away. We don’t keep running in the hopes that we might still catch it: we stop altogether. An inverted-V curve!

It is, of course, always possible to push yourself past an “intolerable peak.” We do this all the time. Just think of how you forced yourself to finish that big report that the boss wanted on her desk first thing in the morning. We invariably rely on “aids” to pull this off, like coffee or Butter Brickle. It’s a case of choosing between the lesser of two evils: your boss’ wrath, or the physical price you know you’re going to pay afterwards.

We can push a child past an “intolerable peak” as well. That’s what we’re doing when yell or threaten. Meltdowns are the result of pushing a child whose limbic brakes have kicked in. We are trying to force the child to keep going: maybe for the very reason that we think he is being lazy and not “applying himself.” His “problematic” behaviour tells us that what was really happening was that the limbic system had limited his capacity to think, and our pushing him too hard is causing a fight-or-flight response.

There are so many reasons why a child or teen look as if they’re being mentally lazy. If they come to a problem with too little fuel in the tank, it’s not going to take very much of a strain for those brakes to kick in. This is the reason why, in Self-Reg, we spend so much time looking at the different kinds of stresses that children and teens must struggle with across all five of the domains that we study [Self-Reg]. The more energy is depleted to begin with, the sooner hard thinking is going to trigger limbic braking.

But what is particularly illuminating about the psychology of reasoning is the light that it sheds on uniquely cognitive forms of stress. What a problem like the ball-and-bat is telling us is that, because of the way we think, we have to work very hard on certain kinds of problems. Maybe it’s because of cultural influences, or because we have trouble with abstract thinking, or with problems that place too much load on our working memory. Whatever the reason, it takes “hard work,” as Kahneman puts it, to “override” an “intuitive” answer. But subjects who accept 10 cents as the answer don’t do so because they are “mentally lazy”: it is because they have reached the peak of their inverted-V curve.

In fact, there are all sorts of specifically cognitive reasons why a child or teen might find certain problems overly taxing: it could be because of something to do with sensory processing and integration; pattern-recognition; memory (long or short-term); processing speed; sequencing problems. What all these issues have in common is that they mean that such a child or teen has to work extra hard – in the “whole body” sense described above – on certain cognitive challenges: not surprisingly, the very ones he gives up on or avoids.

Knowing that a child is being overloaded by a cognitive stress tells us what we need to do to help:

  1. The first step is to reframe behavior: i.e., recognize when you’re dealing with mental laziness and when it’s limbic braking. There is a world of difference between a child who appears to be capable of making an effort but doesn’t seem to try, and a child who is incapable of making an effort because of limbic braking. By asking “why” and “why now” to understand that behaviour in a different way: recognize when it’s stress-behaviour and not misbehaviour.
  2. Identify what makes the problem stressful. Is it the terms in which it’s presented? Lack of experience? Or maybe a previous experience?
  3. Reduce the stress. We need to consider all of the stress-domains, but especially the cognitive. Effective remedial programs succeed because they reduce cognitive stress.
  4. Develop stress-awareness. Children and teens need to be aware of when they are approaching the peak of the inverted-V. Parents need to be aware of this as well, so as to help their child or teen:
  5. Restore before an “intolerable peak” is reached.

Recovery takes considerably longer once the limbic brake is set. “Restore Before” and it will only take a short while before the child is, not just ready, but actually keen to try again. Yet all too often we do the exact opposite from what’s needed, precisely because we see the child as being mentally lazy. We insist that he keep going when what he really needs is to take a break – while we set about figuring out why he’s finding this material so difficult.

Too many negative experiences and a child might well become mentally lazy: i.e., capable of mastering something, but so certain he’ll fail that he refuses to try. It is terribly sad to see this happen when Self-Reg could have dramatically changed his desire and ability to persevere at a mental task that he’s finding difficult. Granted, it may not be possible to make an “intolerable peak” more tolerable; but it is certainly possible to make it a great deal more remote.

About the Author
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University and author of Self-Reg and Calm, Alert and Learning.

More from Stuart Shanker D.Phil.
More from Psychology Today
More from Stuart Shanker D.Phil.
More from Psychology Today