Why are you so lazy?
Online pseudo-psychopsychology is characteristically simplifying an extremely complicated problem.
Though I’ve undoubtedly invited the algorithm to target me with this nonsense, I still can’t help but notice a massive uptick over the past year in ads and social media posts brooding about the problem of lazyness. It’s on TikTok, it’s on Instagram, and it’s all over Twitter. Just a constant firehose of stuff like this:
A lot of this, like the ad on the left, is just unambiguous marketing — but a lot of it, like the tweet on the right, unambiguously isn’t. And the only reason that ads are calling you lazy, of course, is that there is some kind of significant market of people who have anxiety over being lazy that businesses are trying to exploit.
Pay close attention to artifacts of the discourse like this and you’ll also notice a second thing they tend to have in common: generalized diagnosis. The tweet above is a perfect example of the standard formula. “You,” meaning literally anyone who happens to read this; the assurance that you “aren’t lazy”; and then the revelation that you (read: everyone) actually suffer from something counterintuitive but quite specific. That last part is what interests me, because it vividly demonstrates the #1 fallacy of the amateur pseudo-psychology that plagues modern discourse: overgeneralized mass diagnosis.
Etiologies of lazyness
Lazyness is not a specific medical condition in the same sense that a broken leg is, or even a group of medical conditions like “cancer”; it’s a word that we use for all kinds of feelings and behaviors, some having very little to do with biology at all. And even the forms of lazyness that do have a medical or psychological explanation are often completely unrelated. Just a few examples:
Procrastination and distraction behaviors associated with ADHD. Some people have a specific cognitive deficit or dysfunction that prevents them from maintaining focus. This can make work requiring sustained focus so onerous and exhausting that people with ADHD will avoid it and compulsively stop doing it.
Motivational problems associated with clinical depression. Among other things, depression seems to impair the production of dopamine — the primary neurotransmitter associated with motivation. Depression does not directly make work “harder” in the same way ADHD does; instead, it makes work feel pointless and unrewarding, which is why people with depression often have trouble doing seemingly easy things like getting out of bed.
Fatigue problems associated with a million different health conditions. Maybe you have an iron or vitamin D deficiency. Maybe you have thyroid problems. Maybe you aren’t getting enough sleep because of a circadian disorder, or because you are drinking caffeine too late in the evening. There are an endless number of physiological and behavioral problems that can leave you with very little energy to work.
Addiction. It’s time to go to work, but all you want to do is stay home and finish playing Tears of the Kingdom. Not even because of some aversion to work, but because you really, really want to do more gaming. And as it turns out, you’ve spent so much time gaming that it has completely destroyed your social life, leaving you with an emotional void that you have tried to fill, perversely, with more gaming. It would be easy for a bystander to attribute your problem to some kind of lazyness, but gaming isn’t even very relaxing for you; it’s just that you need to do it way too much.
An avoidant attachment style. Your fiance constantly calls you lazy, and it’s become such a serious problem that the conflict and the feelings of guilt are destroying your relationship. So you go into couples therapy, and after a few months of sessions your psychologist finally figures it out: you have an avoidant attachment style that makes you terrified of commitment. But you don’t want to be the one who ends the relationship, either; so instead, you have (quite unconsciously) started sabotaging it with the hope that she will be the one to break it off. And the easiest way to do that, you’ve found, is to just completely stop doing your share of the household work. Thus, without even really planning it, you’ve settled into an implicit strategy of passive-aggressive lazyness.
Undervalued labor in a capitalist economy. Every day you wake up before the sun rises to drive to your job at McDonald’s. You spend an hour frantically mopping up the kitchen and cleaning the stovetop because the night crew never got around to it. Today you’re schedule to work the drive-thru, but one of the kitchen guys didn’t show up so your manager has asked you to man the deep fryer too, and she’ll help when she can. (Then she disappears.) On top of all that it’s an unusually busy day, so by the time you’re ready to clock out you’re completely exhausted. You’re getting ready to pull your drawer to count your change, but on your way to the back you overhear a customer on his phone: “Yeah right, I didn’t work this hard to end up flipping burgers.”
Most folks on the left have encountered the archetype of the meritocratic liberal or conservative who takes for granted that people who work low-paying jobs are just lazy. What is less appeciated is how many low-payed workers also think this — and either just see themselves as an unlucky aberration, or who’ve internalized the narrative into a form of self-hatred.
An Oedipus complex. This diagnosis may be out of fashion among some therapists, but the general logic remains influential among others and it makes, in this case, a whole lot of sense. Since children are born helpless, a caregiver always has to provide for them, and this invariably forms a powerful emotional bond between the two. During a healthy process of maturation, the child eventually learns that there are limits to what she can expect from the caregiver, and learns to use her desire as motivation for finding other ways to satisfy her needs. But sometimes, Freud argues, the child does not learn these lessons, and maintains her infantile expectation of passive satisfaction. If that happens, the child-caregiver bond is not weakened as it ordinarily is, either, and their relationship can become emotionally (if not physically) incestuous.
This, I think, is closest to what a lot of people have in mind when they talk about lazyness. There is something immature about it, and something that violates our moral expectations just as incest does; so it is not just some kind of psychological problem, it is also a character problem. In practice, we probably see something analagous to the Oedipus complex at work with overly coddled children and among the idle rich who emerge time and time again among generational wealth; ironically, I suspect that textbook lazyness is far more common among the well-off than the poor.
Pseudo-psychology and a theory of mind
It would be trivially easy to go on listing examples. In part, just because I often think of myself as a lazy person, and have spent a lot of time reading and talking to therapists and trying to understand why.
But more importantly, it’s easy to list alternative explanations because if you are really curious about other people and really try to understand their motives and intentions, the very first you’ll notice is that they’re extremely diverse. People engage in seemingly similar behavior for all kinds of different reasons. Quite often the reasons are extremely complicated and even counterintuitive, that are completely banal (he’s not getting enough iron) or extraordinarily profound (she has a seemingly unrelated attachment problem that you can really only understand by learning about her childhood).
To me, that diversity and mystery is precisely what makes other people interesting! Consider this recurring line:
Whenever I see pseudopsychology like this I can’t help but think: what a boring, simple world it would be if they were actually right. Imagine if everyone was feeling burned out, and was making the exact same mistake of confusing that for lazyness. Absolute nightmare world — and not because everyone is burned out, but because everyone is burned out. There is nothing new to be learned about anyone, or anything about their mind that really distinguishes them from anyone else.
“People are doing pop psychology about their feelings again” may seem like an odd grievance for this blog, but I think it’s closely related to a more consequential problem I wrote about recently: the closing of the liberal mind. Wild theories that all socialists have cynically adopted their politics in pursuit of online clout generalize motive and psychology in the exact same way as this talk about lazyness. This inability to imagine other explanations for lazyness — maybe we aren’t all burned out — expresses the same failure of imagination as the liberal conviction that sincere socialists cannot exist.
It would undermine my own point to go much further than noting that similarity, or to come up with some mass psychology theory of my own explaining why so many people are so certain about how everyone else thinks and sees the world. What I will say, however, is that this kind of epistemelogical certitude and radical essentialized simplification of human thought has not always been as ubiquitous as it is today, and probably has its strongest parallels in Abrahamic religious movements. Compare it to the artistic explorations of polyphony in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in their fascination with the profound otherness of how different people see and experience the world. Compare it to the (related) modern and postmodern anxieties about subjectivity and the latter’s profound suspicion of an essentialized “universal man.” Compare it to the political challenge positionality and intersectionality laid out against the same, insisting that different identities cannot fully understand each others’ lived experiences. And then think about how those ideas reversed, in popular discourse, into certain and rigid claims about how black women and white men and disabled folks necessarily see and think about the world.
A Marxist might look at this and see capitalism imposing upon the natural diversity of the human mind a kind of industrial standardization; you’ll make more money selling cures for lazyness if you mass-produce a single app that helps with ADHD, and then mass-produce ads telling as many people as possible that ADHD is why they feel so lazy. If you’ve spent years in the media building a brand as an expert on Bashar al-Assad, you can probably sell some podcast subscriptions by insisting that socialists criticize US foreign policy because of their undying loyalty to him; that gross, simplified generalization is much easier to market and produce content for than a more elaborate and agnostic psychoanalysis. A human mind that is simple and works the same way for everyone is easier to commodify and easier incorporate into industrial capitalism’s apparatus of production, marketing, and commodification. The market incentives for popularizing a vision of the human mind that has nothing to do with how you really think are all there.
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