“Lazy” is a Lousy Diagnosis

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Of all the explanations of human behavior, laziness is one that many of us reach for quickly but which adds little to the discussion. When someone seems lazy, what’s really going on?

“My daughter is lazy: she won’t do her homework.” “My husband is lazy: he won’t mow the lawn.” We hear these explanations in everyday life and don’t think too much about them. In therapy, laziness comes up as an explanation too, even from seasoned and successful therapists. In this context, “lazy” doesn’t really belong because therapy is about identifying and resolving or coping with problems, and “lazy” does very little in service of those aims.

Leaving aside the dictionary definition, lazy is most often used to mean “failure to perform for no apparent reason.” Lazy is an explanation of last resort. A diagnosis of “lazy” can be disputed by proposing nearly any other explanation. “My daughter isn’t lazy, the material is over her head.” or “My husband isn’t lazy, the lawn mower is broken.” Notice that these explanations have a model and they point directly to reasonable solutions: age-appropriate course material for the daughter, a new mower for the husband.

If lazy has a model at all, it’s not a very useful one. While we might with some effort distinguish behavior that appears lazy from a person who is lazy, the go-to definition is the latter: certain people just are lazy in the same sense that some people are tall or some people have brown eyes. It’s part of their character. The only remedy that lazy suggests is to confront the lazy individual with their character flaw and tell them to buck up. In my experience, this intervention has roughly a zero percent success rate.

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It would be nice if the diagnosis of lazy could be refined in some way, and indeed I believe it can. When you call your mechanic and complain that your car won’t start, she won’t write down “car won’t start” and go from there but rather begin asking questions like “does the car turn over?” and “do you hear a click when your turn the key?” These diagnostic questions begin to narrow down the problem from the car won’t start to some mental model of why the car won’t start. Perhaps the battery is dead or there is fuel contamination. Each of these causes makes the car behave in different ways and calls for a different remedy that isn’t found in “car won’t start.”

Motivational problems can be a big part of something that looks like laziness. When the lazy label is leveled at someone else, it’s often the case that the person making the diagnosis has a very different valuation of the undone task. When two people live under the same roof, it’s nearly inevitable that one has a greater need for order and cleanliness than the other. When the house slips below the level of the neater roommate, that person will usually either clean or try to get their roommate to clean. While the neater roommate is motivated to clean by their own internal motivations, the other one is motivated, if at all, by the desire to keep the neater one happy, or at least stop the complaining. But this difference in motivation will only come to light when we take the time to look for it.

In some extreme cases, people are penalized for performing. A student scoring highly on an exam is likely to be promoted into even more difficult material requiring the investment of even more time and effort to master increasingly advanced material. Excel again and the ratcheting up continues, potentially until the student can take no more. Unless the motivation for learning is intrinsic, it may be in a student’s rational interest to underperform in order to avoid having more and more work piled upon them.

All too often, people avoid what needs doing because they lack the skills to perform effectively. Skills deficits aren’t always apparent. Unskilled people may think the task is harder than it actually is and avoid it rather than look at their skills. From the outside, if someone isn’t doing a task at all, there’s no way to find out whether they can do it well or not. And because people would rather not display their ignorance, they will avoid admitting their unskillfulness even if it means copping a plea of lazy.

Lazy can also be a synonym for lethargic, and this meaning actually has more utility than the previous definitions. We all have times when we’re full of energy and other times when we can barely keep our eyes open. Some people seem to have more overall energy than others. If lack of performance stems from a lack of energy, you’ll likely know it because the lethargy will be evident in everything someone does. On the other hand, if a person has tons of energy for activities they value, but none for ones they don’t, a motivational explanation may be more apt. There are countless causes of low energy and an equally large numbers of ways to boost energy: with diet, with exercise, with nutrition, and with rest and recovery.

So far I’ve given a few alternative explanations for laziness that all admit ready solutions. While I’ve criticized laziness as a characterological definition and one that doesn’t admit solutions, there are clinical syndromes that do parallel laziness. Personality disorders are the subset of mental illnesses that are seen as pervasive and “baked into” a client’s mind in a way that precludes a rapid solution. Two of the personality disorders are closely aligned to what we might call laziness.

People with Dependent Personality Disorder tend to want others to do for them what we would expect them to do for themselves. They tend to not believe in their own abilities and think of others as more able than they themselves are. Given our previous discussion, someone with Dependent Personality Disorder could present a lot like someone with a genuine skills deficit except that deeper investigation would reveal the problem isn’t lack of skills so much as the belief that those skills aren’t there.

A second personality disorder that could masquerade as laziness is Avoidant Personality Disorder. APD sufferers are often acutely concerned about others judging their performance and will do a lot to avoid being judged inadequate. Ironic, then, that the cost of their avoidance might be being labeled as “lazy.”

Both Dependent Personality Disorder and Avoidant Personality Disorder are clinical syndromes that shouldn’t be diagnosed by a layperson. Rather, if failure to perform or “laziness” seems to lack one of the more mundane explanations above, it may be time to seek out a counselor, therapist, or psychologist with more experience in distinguishing personality disorders from other kinds of mental illness or even more commonplace causes of apparent laziness.

People who fail to perform will no doubt continue to draw the “lazy” label from friends, family, and bosses. However my aim is to give you a list of alternative explanations that allow you to dig into that broad category of laziness in a way that may yield more understanding, compassion and perhaps even a solution to the underlying issue or issues.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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