Are Some People Just Lazy?
Animal research can help with understanding where "laziness" comes from.
Posted January 7, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
If you look around, it's hard not to conclude that some people are just lazy. You could be at the store and notice that some workers just do not want to help you, regardless of how many other people are in the store. Or drive down the road and see some workers standing around while everyone else seems to be putting in a full day’s work. You might even see that same type of thing at your own job.
Laziness comes out even in national statistics. Right now, estimates of the “non-participation” rate in the workforce are close to 40 percent. This means that almost 40 percent of the people who could work are not doing so. Now, this does include many people who have legitimate reasons for not working. People with medical or psychiatric disabilities, for example, fall into this category. But even when you separate out all the people who have any sort of legitimate reason for not working, you still come down to a group who seem to have decided “I just don’t want to work."
Even if you look on “crowdfunding” websites, you see examples of people who just seem to have decided that they want to ask for money because the option of finding work (or finding work in addition to what they already have) isn’t for them. When looking at sites like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, there are many sites created by people who have faced real crises and clearly cannot find any support other than asking other people for money. But then there is another group of sites that, even when reading through all the details of what they are going through, still give off the impression that the person has not really tried other options (like working).
If there is such a thing as “true laziness,” and it seems all these examples show that there is, where does it come from? What is it that makes some people decide that they just don’t have to “pull their own weight”? Why do some people decide that they can look to others for support but not really have to put effort into supporting themselves?
And this all leads to another interesting question: “Are humans the only species with a laziness problem?” Considering this could help to explain what might be some of the sources of laziness and whether it is more of a natural condition or whether it develops based on social conditions.
When you look at the research on laziness and (nonhuman) animals you see that the issue is somewhat complicated. There are certainly many types of animals who seem to do much less work than others. Some animals in social groups move around busily while others just seem to sit there, doing nothing. There is not the sort of division of labor you might expect if everyone was contributing equally.
But when those groups are looked at more closely, the complexity of the issue becomes more evident. What often happens in these animal groups is that different animals have different responsibilities, and some of those responsibilities require more active work than others. When, for instance, certain members of a beehive have the responsibility for caring for the queen, then they might sit still for long periods waiting for the queen to need something. When that happens, they are expected to spring into action quicker than other members. At that time, they will actually look to be busier than the other members of the hive. But much of the time, they are not doing much and may appear to be “lazy” while the other bees are buzzing actively around the hive.
Breed (2015) provided a brief summary of the main hypotheses behind “laziness.” These were hypotheses associated with insect behavior, but they are interesting to consider regarding all animal species. Two of the major hypotheses relate directly to the issue of how certain members of a species might have certain responsibilities and it is those responsibilities that determine how active each member appears. In this context, there are some members of a species who are going to look like they are “lazy” and inactive—but really, they are fulfilling their specific responsibilities for their social group.
But the hypothesis deemed as the most plausible for explaining “lazy” behavior among animals, called the “reserve force/holding pattern” hypothesis, reflects what seems most prominent in any theory about laziness. This is this idea that all individuals function in a way where they will hold in (reserve) their energy until the point that it is needed (or, in other words, will maintain a sort of “holding pattern”). Insects do this—but it is also a strong pattern that you can see with all types of animal species.
Dogs are a good example of this type of functioning. Look at a dog who seems to be “lazily” sitting around. You might look at the dog all day and see very little energy and very little movement. But once something occurs that the dog clearly determines needs attending to, like a doorbell ringing, the dog quickly springs into action and starts barking and running about the house.
It was not that the dog determined that it was not going to do anything. Rather, the dog was waiting until there was something important to do before exerting energy. This was the way that the dog could put a “holding pattern” on its energy, and keep it in “reserve” until it was needed for something important.
Being able to function in the wild requires this sort of energy conservation. Animals do not know when they are going to need their energy for getting food, reproducing, or fighting off an enemy. They have to hold off on exerting energy if they can expect to have that energy when needed. Reserving energy is important for survival out in the wild.
What constitutes the difference between animal behavior in the wild and (human and nonhuman) animal behavior in more domestic situations is what constitutes a “necessary” use of energy. That dog is responding to its natural instinct to address immediately something that might involve a danger (i.e., someone trying to come into the dog’s home by ringing a doorbell). Likely it is not a danger, but the dog does not know that at the time and must exert energy to be sure.
Human survival outside of the wild does not involve the straightforward situations that exist in the wild. In order to survive (gather food, find and keep mates, and keep potential enemies at bay) humans have to engage in a lot of different behaviors throughout the day. But many of those behaviors do not directly relate to a human’s survival—and remembering specifically what motivation might relate to that behavior can be difficult.
A tiger putting effort into fighting off another animal out in the wild has direct motivation for keeping that tiger, and its family and social group, alive. But that sort of direct motivation does not necessarily exist for someone working eight hours in an office.
So, in many ways “laziness” is related to how motived people feel to engage in behaviors throughout the day, and what behaviors are determined to be the most obvious at being “worthwhile” for exerting energy. It may very well be that “laziness” is not the result of a specific personality trait but more that the situations itself do not present the person with sufficient motivation for exerting needed energy. These are the situations that do not cause the parts of the brain that start energy exertion to “kick in."
When you see someone acting “lazy,” your first thought might be, “You need to do something." But on their level, the response may be, “What if I don’t?” “What if I don’t get up for work?” or “What if I don’t do what my parents tell me to do?” If there is no direct connection between doing something and the importance of doing it, then it becomes less likely that a person will do it.
Laziness may often be the result of there being too much of a disconnect between what a person is asked to do and why that task is important. Individuals who do not see any benefit to what they are being told to do are often the ones most likely to be "lazy." Animals often engage in tasks where the importance and benefit of the work is evident and reinforced. Humans who are lazy may need more of that emphasis.
Discouraging laziness at work, for example, may depend on employers doing more to emphasize why workers, and the jobs they do, are important. Criticizing and deducting pay from employees who are lazy might be the first reaction. But looking at where laziness comes from supports the idea that doing more to reinforce the importance of workers and what they are being told to do is likely to be more effective.
So, it is possible that “lazy” people are people who have been separated from seeing any point to putting effort into doing things they are told to do. If the reinforcement or purpose of doing something is not evident to a person, then it is very unlikely that they are going to do it. Providing more opportunity for people to see the benefits and purposes to things is likely to offer some help to decreasing the problem of “laziness."
Breed, M. (2015). Why are workers lazy?. Insectes Sociaux, 62(1), 7-8.