The colleague who does the bare minimum. The student who doesn’t finish their homework. The teammate who skips crucial matches. It might be tempting to call them, or at least think of them, as lazy. (Even when that person is you.)
But according to some psychologists, that would be a mistake. Because, they argue, lazy people don’t actually exist.
An American therapist named Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., is among those in the mental health field to hold this unconventional theory.
As he wrote for Psychology Today back in 2008, “I believe that the whole idea of anyone’s being inherently lazy – or having a ‘lazy personality’ – is basically a myth.
“Referring to – or rather, disparaging, or even dismissing – a person as lazy seems to me a glib and overly simplistic way of accounting for a person’s apparent disinterest or inertia… I view this pejorative designation as employed mostly as a ‘default’ when the person talked about is not particularly well understood.”
In other words, when we call people ‘lazy’ we’re missing something about them. We’re seeing surface behaviour that stems from something deeper.
So if it’s not laziness, what is it?
Devon Price, Ph.D., a social psychologist, writer and psychology professor (who also ascribes to the laziness myth theory), points to procrastination – something commonly associated with ‘laziness’.
“People love to blame procrastinators for their behaviour. Putting off work sure looks lazy, to an untrained eye,” she wrote via Medium. “[But] When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being ‘good enough’ or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness.
“In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well… It has nothing to do with desire, motivation, or moral upstandingness.”
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Both Drs. Selzter and Price argue that, particularly in adults, behaviour that might outwardly appear to be lazy often stem from a lack of self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to accomplish a task).
Into that, feeds factors like mental illness (for example, the absence of motivation that often comes with depression), a lack of emotional and practical support, inability to find meaning/purpose in a task, fear of failure, and so on.