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Humans Could be Prone to Laziness, But We'll Put in Effort for a High Reward

What makes us lazy? Find out how laziness could be a whole new take on "working smarter not harder."

By Sara Novak
Feb 26, 2024 4:00 PM
man being lazy on the couch
(Credit: Net Vector/Shutterstock)


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At the end of the day, most of us find ourselves on the couch, eyes glued to the television or to our smartphones. Maybe we’re reading a book or the newspaper, but we’re still most likely seated, trying to relax after a long day of running around. It seems that we humans are gifted in the way of laziness, doing everything that we can to conserve energy.

After a day of thinking at our desks or at whatever our job is, we similarly love to space out, our brain tired of focusing. But are we hardwired this way, or are we just too tired now from our overly busy schedules to do anything other than veg out at the end of the work day? 

Humans Could Be Prone To Laziness

According to Michael Inzlicht, a social psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, we’re lazy and also, we’re not. Yes, all humans, and in fact, all animals ever measured given equal options, will take the easy way out.

“Does it mean we’re lazy? Maybe. But it certainly means that we’re economic with our effort,” says Inzlicht. “We’re always looking to minimize our effort and, at the same time, maximize the amount of reward we get for that effort.”

An October 2018 study published in the journal Neuropsychologia found that our brains may in fact, be wired for laziness. Despite our best efforts, even though we know the benefits of exercise, our brains are constantly telling us to stay glued to the couch.

It’s not completely clear why humans behave this way. We can’t know for sure whether there is an evolutionary purpose to it, but that would make sense. After all, before we were able to go to the grocery store, calories were much more directly linked to effort. Every calorie we burned meant more hunting, fishing, or gathering.

And we’re equally economic with effort when it’s not physical. For example, if we can study for an hour and get an A on a test versus four hours for that same A, we’re only going to spend an hour.

Using brain power does burn calories, and, in fact, the brain is among the body’s biggest usurpers of caloric energy. Some researchers even contend that the higher your IQ, the more calories your brain burns.

Read More: 5 Thought-Provoking Facts About Brain Function

When Humans Aren’t Lazy

But then there are the times when humans are the opposite of lazy and do very difficult things for no apparent reason. Some rewards only come from extensive effort.

Think about things like running a marathon. Running this far isn’t particularly good for your health. It might even cause more harm than good in terms of running injuries like stress fractures, shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, and back pain. But we do it anyway because putting in the effort makes us feel good, says Inzlicht.

Running such long distances isn’t anything new; humans have been this way for a while. The first modern Olympics when the marathon appeared as an event was in 1896, though tales of running feats go back much further. The marathon was born when the great messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C.E. to warn against the invading Persian Army. This is more likely mythology than anything else, but you get the point. In the same way, we might get a sense of pleasure or mastery from doing a crossword puzzle.

“Maybe it’s to show yourself that you’re capable of great feats or maybe to show others,” says Inzlicht. But we really don’t know for sure.

So, in that sense, effort is worth the effort. And while humans are economically aware of effort most of the time, “in some cases, the effort itself is rewarding,” says Inzlicht.

Read More: Some of the 6 Laziest Animals May Put You to Shame

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