Are we getting lazier? -Aaryan, 9, Timber Ridge

Dear Aaryan,

We cats have a reputation for being lazy. We sleep a lot. But the truth is when I got your question, I didn’t know much about laziness. So, I decided to talk about it with a couple of psychologists here at Washington State University.

My first stop was the Psychology of Physical Activity Lab. That’s where I met up with my friend, Professor Anne E. Cox.

Cox said that when she was playing college basketball, she started to struggle with feeling motivated to practice. It actually sparked a few questions, like: What makes people choose what they do or don’t do?

“From what I know about motivation, laziness has to be rewarding,” Cox said. “We only do things that reward us in some way. There is often an immediate satisfaction to relaxing, watching TV, or whatever it may be.”

I also found out some of the latest research suggests that while humans aren’t necessarily getting lazier, they do tend to sit more than they did in the past.

The thing is that the human body actually likes to move around. In fact, Cox said that humans want to move from the time they are born. Just think about the way babies roll on the floor, she adds.

“The more you move your body, the more your body wants to move,” she said.

After talking with Cox, I decided to move on over to my friend Craig Parks’ office. He’s also a psychology professor here at WSU.

“I’m not so sure we’ve gotten lazier so much as we’ve simplified tasks that used to be laborious,” he said. “So, we don’t have to expend as much energy as people in even the recent past did.”

It would have been particularly important for early humans to save their energy to survive. It might have looked lazy, but it was actually smart in case they needed to walk long distances to find dinner.

But now technology and new inventions have made it easier for humans to do work and do it faster, leaving them with more free time.

“I suppose we could fill the time with more work, but why?” Parks said. “A lot of people believe that humans are naturally oriented toward ease rather than effort, so the notion of extra work would not be appealing.”

And if it doesn’t sound appealing, perhaps it might be helpful to find, well, some motivation.

Cox explained that sometimes people feel motivated to do physical activity because it’s fun, feels good, or it can be done with friends. Kids are especially great at summoning this kind of motivation. It’s what psychologists call intrinsic motivation. Then there’s external motivation that comes from things like wanting to change your body. But Cox said their data shows it’s the intrinsic motivation that works best.

“It’s just such a surefire equation,” she adds. “That’s why I love science because we can predict this.”

There’s plenty we can explore, learn, and discover if only we are motivated to do so. And maybe just after a quick catnap.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Got a science question? E-mail Dr. Wendy Sue Universe at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu. Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University.