I originally wanted to ask a question "Is there a drug for motivation or laziness", but google search revealed that people have been asking this question for years and there's no drug that is currently prescribed to fix those issues.

This makes me interested in the the following question: Did "motivation issues" or laziness always exist for humans, or is it something that became a much bigger problem because of the modern lifestyle or cuture?

For example, I'm thinking of peasants of "ye olde days", who had to work really hard to get by, or early factory workers, who apparently did 12+ hour shifts from a very early age. Those people had no drugs or cognitive-behavior therapy to correct their issues.

Maybe there's some "laziness scale" that could be used to look at historic trends in laziness and motivation?

UPDATE: it would be very interesting to examine if a correlation exists between laziness and workforce moving from working physically/outdoors(ex: farmers) towards working mentally indoors(office workers) over the years.

I would define laziness or motivational issues as "I will do this tomorrow" attitude (procrastination) or promising to do something, but delivering excuses as to why the task wasn't done. The task never gets started.

  • $\begingroup$ I would imagine when I society gets "fat and happy" is when the laziness kicks in on a large scale. If you have everything, why work for anything? It also has to do with how bad we want something, i.e. China and America, China wants to be a world leader really bad, and they are working to the death, literally. It also transfers to a personal scale. I always have wondered what happened to those rich spoiled kids I knew growing up, they sure weren't into working, where some of the less off kids worked very hard, even taking care of their parents. Many factors need to be analyzed in such a study. $\endgroup$ – Greg McNulty Jul 29 '13 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ How exactly do you define laziness or motivation issues? This seems so contingent on many notions that are far from obvious (e.g. “work” being distinct from other spheres of activity, people having a general level of “motivation” independent of its object, etc.) and full of assumptions (people might engage in some activities depending on circumstances without any need for a personal “laziness” trait to explain it) as to be very difficult to answer meaningfully. Not to mention the moralistic overtone of the word “laziness”, which is not helpful. $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 30 '13 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ Note that to a large extent we make “laziness” a problem through objectively dreadful life conditions (case of the early factory workers) or norms basically associated with the European middle-class. Aristocrats often valued a way of life and occupations that can easily be derided as “lazy”, hunter-gatherers can subsist while spending limited time gathering food and aren't particularly unhappy about it, etc. $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 30 '13 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ I think they call it coffee $\endgroup$ – bobobobo Aug 19 '13 at 20:20

A possible way to try to answer this, is to analyze usage of words such as lazy versus words such as diligent over the years. As a toy example, I used Google Ngram viewer to compare the frequency in which the words lazy, indolent and slothful are used in the main part of a sentence, to the frequency in which the words diligent, industrious, and laborious are used in the main part of a sentence (link).

Figure comparing frequency of the 2 term groups

It seems that indeed people were more hard working back in the 1800's, and are more lazy today. Or at least, that is what is what is reflected in what book authors write.

A similar trend exists if we omit the "main part of a sentence" thing, and simply look at the frequency of appearance of these words (link).

Word analysis is pretty powerful :

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for introducing the Ngram tool, it looks really powerful $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone Jul 30 '13 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ The second-to-last paragraph is total nonsense. People were writing about laziness or industriousness, an interesting fact in itself but not something to be confused with people being lazy, however defined. Also, all the words you used for “hard-working” have a definite literary or outdated feel about them whereas “lazy” does not, I would therefore expect them to become relatively less frequent in the corpus, no matter what. $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 30 '13 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Gaël Laurans, that's why I called it 'Toy example'. Its an example of how one can use such data to address this question, and not an actual study. $\endgroup$ – Ofri Raviv Jul 30 '13 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ I must agree with Gaël Laurans: texts reflect what people wrote about, not what people did. The Ngrams reflect that there was a prevailing ideology obsessed with vices versus self-governance during the 18th and 19th century, and that this ideology has faded. Also, texts reflect the thinking of only the text publishing subpopulations, and those are rarely representative of the majority of the people. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Jul 31 '13 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ @BenCole Good point but unfortunately the corpus tells us very little about the audience, for example all books have the same weight, the frequency does not reflect the popularity of the various texts. Also simply looking for words is quick and easy but does not account for the way they are used (e.g. texts using the word “laborious” could be lamenting the fact that people are not laborious anymore, etc.) $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 31 '13 at 19:36

The change that is relevant to your question is not that from a rural farming life to an urban office-working one, but the neolithic revolution.

In early prehistory and during the palaeolithic period, our ancestors lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They did nothing but hunt and gather food. When they were sated, they relaxed. Because they had no fridges, food could not be stored, so there was no purpose in "working" more than was necessary for the momentary satisfaction of hunger or repairing of tents and hunting gear.

"Laziness" can be seen as a result of the necessity of sustaining the ecosystem that the hunters were dependent upon:

Hunting results in rapidly diminishing returns – it is a risky, arduous and time-consuming business. This is reflected in the fact that predatory animals tend to be spectacularly lazy. Lions, for example, sleep or doze for at least twenty hours a day, and spend another two hours growling and grooming. They hunt for only about two hours a day. Kalahari bushmen have similar been shown to hunt for only about six hours a week [sic!]. 'Laziness' is a way of life for the big predator. (Tudge, 1998, p. 33)

Then, about 10.000 years ago, the first humans settled down and began agriculture. From this moment onwards, each day was filled with hard labor.

... farming changes the rules of the game. Farming manipulates the environment with the express purpose of overcoming its natural restraints. The more you manipulate, the more food you can produce. The harder farmers work the more food they can produce. Laziness is emphatically not favoured. A hunter who works twice as hard as average may get twice as much food in the short term, but will soon come unstuck as his prey disappears. But the farmer who works ten times as hard as his neighbor will indeed produce ten times as much food – and in favourable circumstances can sustain this tenfold increase indefinitely. (Tudge, 1998, p. 33)

Motivation for paleolithic hunter-gatherers was simply the need to not go hungry. It was not something that you did not have. You either hunted or died. The very concept of motivation does not fit such a life, because action sprang directly from your basic needs. While those needs were satisfied, there was no need for action: "laziness, nomadism and sharing were all integral parts of the Aboriginal life-style" (Ward, 1988).

Hunter-gatherer life is the garden Eden that Adam was sent forth from: "thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread". Rowley-Conwy, in his aptly titled article "The laziness of the short-distance hunter" (1984), argues that for one Mesolithic community in western Denmark at least, "farming was not adopted until problems arose with the hunter-gatherer economy".

If you want to study how problems with motivation came about, you'll need to go look at the difference between nomadic hunter-gatherer and settled farmer life.

Evolutionary psychology assumes "that our minds and bodies are adapted for an ancestral environment", and "that we suffer the consequences of poor fit between our inherited natures and many of the constructed environments in organizational society" (Nicholson, 1997).

Geary and Bjorklund (2000) think that motivation depends on the type of ability that is necessary for performance:

... much of formal education is "unnatural" in that much of what children are taught involves tasks never encountered by our ancestors (Brown & Bjorklund, 1998; Geary, 1995). Although humans apparently have been using language for thousands of years, it is only in this century that the majority of people on the planet are literate. Geary (1995) referred to language and other evolved forms of cognition, such as those represented in Figure 1 [nonverbal behavior, language, facial processing, theory of mind, kin, in-group, out-group, social ideologies, flora, fauna, movement, representation, engineering], as biologically primary abilities, and skills that build upon these primary abilities but are principally cultural inventions, such as reading, as biologically secondary abilities. Biologically primary abilities are acquired universally and children typically have high motivation to perform tasks involving them. In contrast, biologically secondary abilities are culturally determined, and often tedious repetition and external motivation are necessary for their mastery. From this perspective, it is understandable that many children have difficulty with reading and higher mathematics. (emphasis added)

And from this perspective it is also understandable that most of us aren't very motivated to perform those of our daily chores that require biologically secondary abilities, and I would surmise that the motivation declines as we move towards abilities that build upon abilities that ... are more and more removed from our biologically primary concerns.


  • Geary, D. C., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2000). Evolutionary developmental psychology. Child Development, 71, 57-65. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00118
  • Nicholson, N. (1997). Evolutionary psychology: Toward a new view of human nature and organizational society. Human Relations, 50, 1053-1078. doi:10.1177/001872679705000901
  • Rowley-Conwy, P. (1984). The laziness of the short-distance hunter: The origins of agriculture in western Denmark. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 3, 300-324. doi:10.1016/0278-4165(84)90005-9
  • Tudge, C. (1998). Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Ward, R. (1988). Aboriginal communists. Labour History, 55, 1-8. http://www.jstor.org/stable/i27508887
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    $\begingroup$ +1 It's difficult to know what the experience of early humans might have been like but research showing that hunter-gatherers can live in harsh conditions spending only a few hours a day looking for food is quite suggestive. $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 30 '13 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ They are becoming more rare every year, but until recently there were still hunter-gatherer tribes living in Africa, South America and a few other places. It is still possible to go visit them and have them fill in some motivation survey ;-) $\endgroup$ – user3116 Jul 31 '13 at 6:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's quite common (and slightly disturbing) to see psychologists look for some “stone age tribes”, hype the fact they don't have TV at home and ask them to classify facial expressions and the like but they would still not be early humans. The narrative is appealing but assuming that people who practice this lifestyle live the exactly the same way than 20000 years ago or don't care for anything else than their daily food supply is a bit simplistic. $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 31 '13 at 6:56
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    $\begingroup$ You are confusing the point of my argument. I did not say that hunter-gatherer tribes today are exactly equal to paleolithic humans. What I did say is that it would be interesting to compare people living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with people living a settled, agricultural-industrial lifestyle with regards to motivation and laziness (the topics of this question). And that is certainly possible with a tribe that exists today (if such tribes still exist). $\endgroup$ – user3116 Jul 31 '13 at 7:58
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the point is what I did say, namely the fact that I spoke of “early humans” and you seemed to be responding to that. More generally, evidence about hunter-gatherer lifestyle is relevant but I am a bit skeptical about all the storytelling, psychologists literally using phrases like “stone-age tribes” (you don't seem to realize it but even the word “tribe” is far from neutral, here) and the sort of assumptions that goes into naive comparisons. $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 31 '13 at 8:41

Although it would be hard to experiment on dead peasants, I believe that the Status Quo Bias promotes the idea that laziness is a human trait. You can see the orignal research here, or just google the term.

Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of risk and uncertainty, 1(1), 7-59.

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    $\begingroup$ The funny thing is that we can often name a bias and its “opposite” (say sensation seeking?) leaving us with some plausible-sounding “explanation” for any set of observations we can come across but really not much in the way of useful prediction. $\endgroup$ – Gala Jul 30 '13 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ This is why we need personality assessment methodology :) Sensation-seeking is not a bias; it is a dimension of individual differences, a trait. Find a sample collectively low enough on it to achieve a significant effect on some behavioral outcome, and you've got status quo bias (in a publication from before some social psychologists had fully acknowledged the legitimacy of personality psychology). On the other hand, it does seem to still be a thing, so it might be more than just one side of a trait dimension. A bias is not a trait though. $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Feb 24 '14 at 16:40

It seems that what you are getting at might be related to “akrasia” or “weakness of the will” (those two are slightly different ideas). Roughly, it's the experience that you know something to be the right course of action, want (in some sense) to follow it but still do not succeed in actually doing it. Since classical Greek philosophers have written about it, it would seem to have been an experience humans made before modern times.

Another relevant observation is that being unable to do things one wishes to do and feeling bad about it is an important aspect of depression or even simply sadness. One would (hopefully!) not apply a pejorative word like laziness to someone who is suffering but that could be interpreted as a form of “motivation problem”. Since depression (or “melancholia”) has also been described a long time ago, this is further evidence that all this did not appear in modern times.


Your question "I will do this tomorrow" is well studied under term procrastination. As you can see on wikipedia page:

There are a lot of causes and "how to measure"....


It is true that some form of procrastination was noticed in ancient Greeks, but it is became very important in industrial revolution with concept of time was valued more...


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