“Lazy” Hurt Less Than “Stupid”?

Bryan Caplan reports on a meta-analysis comparing intelligence, personality, and status in predicting life outcomes:

The magnitude of the effects of personality traits on mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment was indistinguishable from the effects of [Socioeconomic status] and cognitive ability.

Conscientiousness, i.e., not being lazy, matters about as much as intelligence, i.e., not being stupid.   And it is similarly heritable, i.e., genetic, it is more correlated with gender, and probably similarly correlated with race, class, and ethnicity.  Yet stupidity seems a far more sensitive topic.  Many deny intelligence exists as a meaningful concept, many others say we should not study intelligence-group correlations, and employers are discouraged from using intelligence tests in hiring.  Yet few seem to object to the meaningfulness of personality concepts, no one has even bothered to study personality-race correlations, and employers seem to face lower barriers to using personality tests in hiring.

So why is “lazy” less insulting/sensitive than “stupid”?   Some possibilities:

  1. Folks (incorrectly) think laziness is less permanent than stupidity.
  2. Laziness is a desire, smarts an ability; bad desires are less insulting than bad abilities.
  3. Good personality tests are recent; after a century of racist, sexist, etc. uses they’d be just as sensitive.
  4. Intellectuals see school as filtering stupidity more than laziness; IQ tests compete more with their product.

What say ye?

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  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    You can use incentives to get someone who is lazy to do something (threaten them more with unwanted outcomes, or offer to reward them with more promising outcomes), whereas you can’t use incentives to make someone stupid smarter, so laziness isn’t as bad as stupidity.

  • Patri Friedman

    I think it is a combination of #1 and #2. People perceive laziness as being subject to conscious control, an aspect of choice, while intelligence is an innate ability. Innate abilities bring up all kinds of issues, since they can’t be changed people don’t like to believe that they exist or are important, they conflict with the blank slate viewpoint. Perhaps most importantly, their distribution is deeply tied in with our sense of fairness – some people having better innate abilities (or, god forbid, some races having better innate abilities) causes a strong emotional unfairness reaction (I don’t understand why).

    Laziness is perceived not as measuring a personality trait, but measuring whether someone “chooses” to work hard. In practice, laziness (or at least, how it manifests) must be more malleable than intelligence, since intelligence seems to be almost completely un-malleable.

  • Peter Twieg

    I’m not familiar with the relevant literature, but I do have the impression that personality-race studies have been performed… perhaps not in a rigorous experimental setting, but at least in an ethnographic one. You hear all the time about how future-mindedness is a Western construct (and, as some critical theorists have argued, its promotion is tantamount to an endorsement of institutional racism.) Remember Marco Castillo’s presentation at the Public Choice seminar of racial influences on the discount rate? That seems like a relevant study of the relationship between personality and race, and possibly even between laziness in particular and race, insofar as a lower discount rate tends to give rise to “lazy” behaviors.

    I think the reason why these studies haven’t been performed is largely due to a fear of being labeled as a crypto-racist if certain sorts of results are found. And that (many) people would ultimately change their views towards laziness if they felt that arguments concerning the laziness of certain groups were being leveraged to create outcomes that they felt were insufficiently inclusive. These people would constitute a vocal minority, but I imagine that it would overlap heavily with the vocal minorities which protest intelligence testing in the present.

  • http://sophia.smith.edu/~jdmiller/resume.pdf James D. Miller

    There is a benefit to being lazy (less disutility from work) so, unlike with low intelligence, we don’t assume that lazy people have much lower quality of life than conscientious people do.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      I just say a T-shirt on this topic a few days ago:

      “Hard work pays off in the future,
      Laziness pays off right now.”

  • Jess Riedel

    The post seems to take it as obvious that laziness isn’t as malleable as stupidity, but this is far from obvious for me. Don’t some institutions demonstratively curb laziness, such as charter schools, the military, and sports?

    Perhaps this is an issue of terminology, where we should distinguish between innate laziness due to genes (or perhaps upbringing before some age) from expressed laziness, just as we distinguish genetic predisposition for intelligence from IQ test scores. Surely in both the cases of intelligence and laziness, there is some environmental influence which causes a discrepancy between innate characteristics and expression.

    Is the claim then that, after a certain age, expressed laziness is as hard to modify as IQ? My anecdotal experience suggests otherwise, but I’d like to see some hard evidence. In other words, I don’t expect that sending a high school dropout into the Military will induce perfect discipline later in life, but I do expect it to be more effective then trying to raise their IQ through additional schooling.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      I think laziness can somewhat be overcome with fairly constant prodding from outside. And I saw a study years ago (pre-Internet, and I don’t remember where) that stated flatly that there was little correlation between military (imposed) discipline and later self-discipline. There was some, and I suspect “laziness/self-discipline”, like IQ, has a middling range of heritability of about 50-60%, and those who benefited had inherited the ability for self-discipline but had never seen its utility before.

  • Jess Riedel

    One other thing: Isn’t the result of the study that personality characteristics are as effective at predicting life outcomes as intelligence, not that one is more malleable than the other? Isn’t it clear then that people are simply considered less culpable if they fail because of a characteristic over which they have less control?

  • Z. M. Davis

    I know, anecdotes are worthless when we actually have data, &c., &c. Yet I still find it hard to believe that there is such a thing as immaleable domain-general laziness. For myself, I’m dramatically much less lazy now (in the wake of my purity born of pain) than I was say, this time last year, and I aim to do still better. And even now, I’m much less lazy when I’m studying something I care about, versus performing some rote task at my dayjob.

    I worry that too much focus on relative outcomes can actually create harmful self-fulfilling prophecies. If you constantly dwell on the fact that other people are smarter than you, then you may be too demoralized to put forth an effort. And yet—on my system of valuing things, anyway–the fact that I know a theorem in no way denies or detracts from the fact that you know a theorem; the fact that I created something beautiful in no way denies or detracts from the fact that you created something beautiful. So, yes, there are such things as innate personality traits and abilities, and the central limit theorem ensures that on a collective level, we will see the typical bell-shaped curves. Yet I would consider it harmful for the takeaway lesson for individuals to be “You are doomed by your genetics! Nothing you do matters!” Because I don’t think anyone is operating at peak efficiency—I know that I’m not, certainly not yet. So for an individual with the audacity to ignore the bell curve, ignore status, and embrace “Tsuyoku naritai!” I think there’s a lot of low-hanging rationality fruit and low-hanging efficiency fruit.

    On the other hand, I also realize it probably takes a certain amount of intelligence and conscientiousness to appreciate this insight and take it seriously. This world depresses me …

  • http://ssmag.wordpress.com Peterw

    Probably a mixture of #1 and #2. Note also that some very smart people use their laziness as a signal of their native intelligence: if they can get stuff done while expending little effort, then certainly they must be bright young men indeed, etc.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    I suppose that laziness can be affected by rewards and punishments, but smartness I suppose can be too, because one can to an extent replace smarts with experience (a less intelligent person might learn what a smarter person learns, but might take longer), so my initial answer is perhaps a bit off. A lazy person can work as hard as a conscientious worker, but it takes more pressure on him positively and negatively.

  • http://Brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    Desire + Dicipline + Time = Ability

    What’s the point in measuring ability when discipline and time can be controlled?

  • Captain Awesome

    “Yet few seem to object to the meaningfulness of personality concepts, no one has even bothered to study personality-race correlations, and employers seem to face lower barriers to using personality tests in hiring”

    This seems a bit bizarre to me. If somebody published a book suggesting that non-whites were inherently lazier, the authors would have hell to pay. Also, I’d be shocked if any large private sector employer in the country is using personality tests that disproportionately screen out minorities.

  • phane

    Laziness versus stupidity is a blame game. You can’t help it if you’re stupid, but the lazy are at fault; they should get off their asses.
    I constantly struggle to maintain motivation towards long-term goals, so I resent that attitude in the public perception, but I think that’s what it amounts to. “He’s smart, so he’s capable of success, so if he doesn’t succeed, there’s nobody to blame but him. His stupid neighbor, though, is a helpless victim of his own lack of capability.”

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Jonathan Haidt predicted at Edge that group differences in these kinds of traits will be even more controversial than IQ.

    Mike Kenny’s point reminds me of Bryan Caplan’s “gun to the head test” from The Economics of Szasz.

    Steve Sailer once claimed that personality tests are less common than IQ tests because it is more dangerous to get a false positive there. I don’t know how plausible I find that, but more convincing is his claim that you can only fake an IQ test if you in fact have a high IQ, which makes it inherently more reliable than personality tests. If you’re applying for a job and say that you’d be willing to steal things (or at least look the other way) and that “sometimes I feel I am no good at all”, you probably don’t have high IQ either.

    • Eric Johnson

      I’ve said it before, but Caplan’s dichotomizing use of the “gun-to-head” test, to determine whether or not a particular behavior is a free preference, turns out to be exquisitely ironic. By his lights, depressive behavior is just an unusual sort of preference, since the depressed person will readily get off the couch, get dressed, etc, in response to a robust change of incentivization, such as being placed at gunpoint. How ironic, then, that thousands of depressed people point guns at their own heads and pull the trigger, every day! Some gun-to-head test that is. It’s one thing to characterize depression as a “preference” moment by moment, but it’s erroneous to consider it only moment by moment in the first place, because the same experimental results don’t obtain over a larger scope such as a day or a decade – just try keeping the depressed subject at gunpoint for several years and see if he stays “cured,” or in fact gives up and accepts being shot by the experiementer much more readily than a normal subject would (exactly as mice in laboratory models of depression give up resisting more readily than normals in the “forced swim test”).

      • Doug S.

        One common symptom of depression is, indeed, a lack of response to incentives – in a severely depressed state, we will, in fact, just let the experimenter go ahead and shoot us, or shrug our shoulders at the offer of a free, all-expenses paid vacation to Hawaii (or something else generally considered desirable and hard to attain). Somewhat unfortunately, when a person is treated with antidepressant medication, this extreme apathy sometimes disappears before the misery does, giving the sufferer enough initiative to finally end the suffering once and for all.

      • Noumenon

        I get such great satisfaction out of hearing people explain why Bryan Caplan is stupid and wrong… it’s one bias I just want confirmed over and over.

  • http://beyondrivalry.org M Wms

    I agree with some others that it’s a combo of #1 and #2. Also, laziness is not always seen as bad. Some people secretly desire to be lazy and are envious of those who are. Is anyone envious of stupidity?

    • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

      ‘ignorance is bliss’. Also, don’t adults envy children when they enjoy simple-minded games? It’s not that the children are ignorant, it’s just that they are stupid enough to still enjoy it – they really can’t solve tic-tac-toe on their own, it’s just too hard.

  • http://web.mac.com/redbird/ Gordon Worley

    #4 makes me think that school doesn’t measure intelligence or laziness, but rather the student’s ability to make a good trade off between the two. The more intelligent can afford to be lazier, while the less intelligent must learn to work harder to achieve the same results (which is usually possible in school, since with the exception of a few fields where some minimum level of intelligence or dedication is usually the barrier to entry, they can be traded off to good effect). Thus success in school might be a good indicator of one’s ability to strike an effective balance between one’s own intelligence and laziness.

    • komponisto

      This would have some plausibility, except that laziness seems to be punished much more severely in school than stupidity. At least that’s my own experience: I barely managed to graduate from high school, despite scoring very highly on intelligence tests; and yet I was sufficiently un-lazy to graduate summa cum laude from a state university shortly thereafter.

  • Robert Koslover

    As a student in primary school in the 1960s, we received two grades on our report cards for each subject. One was for “achievement” and the other was for “effort.” I considered it an insult to receive a higher grade for effort than for achievement, but a compliment to receive the reverse.

    • JonathanL

      Reminds me of the saying: “Well they get an ‘A’ for effort.”

  • Psychohistorian

    Intelligence is seen as more of an issue of personal identity. We are our thoughts; people think that implying that one group of people thinks better than another implies that they are superior as people (which doesn’t make sense on several levels). Laziness is not a part of personal identity or perceived self worth in nearly the same way.

    Furthermore, intelligence is generally framed as univariate and strictly increasing on a scale. IQ is a number that is greater than or less than other people’s numbers, making a quick, clean comparison. Personality is rather more complicated, and it is not on an increasing scale. Most variance in personal traits lacks a clear > relationship.

    It also doesn’t give you much in the way of a practical claim. If you acknowledge that I’m much smarter than you, you should probably give my opinions extra weight. If you acknowledge that I’m much more of a go-getter than you, this does not imply a change in behaviour that I can think of.

    • diogenes

      IQ in a way is just as messy. Say your IQ is 130, and mine is 110. I’m a poli sci junkie and follow the news religiously. You only care tangentially. Should I give more weight on your opinion of the war than my own opinion?

      In your go-getter example — the obvious change in behavior is, presumably the go-getter would be better at project management (or running a grant), all other things equal.

  • andrew c

    Lazy people by definition don’t care as much about ‘life outcomes’.

  • tom

    If traits like consientiousness are so heritable, shouldn’t we be talking about taxing them like we’re going to tax height? After all, Mankiw just used height as an example of attributes that are associated with increased earnings.

    • Eric Johnson

      All ideas about taxing natural goods to equalize happiness end badly in my mind, because there will always be one more important natural good to tax. And many goods, like beauty, are somewhat subjective and thus a lot harder to measure than height. The ultimate natural good, indeed the ultimate good period, and really the most logical thing to tax in equality’s name, is “well-being” – one of the least measurable goods of all.

  • Constant

    Rather than taxing natural differences, let us eliminate natural differences. Everyone will be a clone of everyone else, and there will be no life on the planet but us (since if natural differences among humans are problematic, consider the natural differences between species). We will, of course, eat each other.

  • Taemojitsu

    English doesn’t really have a pejorative word for having low ‘conscientiousness’. Lazy can mean avoiding unnecessary work as well. It is likely that at least some of the negative correlation is social factors because it will usually be the superiors in an organization that determine what is ‘necessary’ or not; but again mostly just because it’s hard to compare and so people have different readings of the actual word, ‘lazy’

  • http://cei.org/people/alex-harris Alex Harris

    One of my law professors once explained why firms prefer students with top grades from top law schools: “Firms know they can’t be both lazy and stupid.” That got me thinking. I would much rather be lazy and smart than hardworking and dumb. I get the same results with less effort if I’m lazy and smart. (Hence, “work smarter, not harder.”) People who can coast through life doing very little but achieving a lot are more impressive (because we want to emulate them more) than people who have to fight for every scrap.

  • Joseph Knecht

    I think it comes down to (1) [perceived] choice, (2) [perceived] responsibility, (3) [perceived] difficulty/rapidity of ‘fixing the problem’.

    1. laziness is conceptualized as a choice, while smarts is conceptualized as being mostly beyond our ability to choose; 2. from the first point, it follows that the lazy person is responsible for their state, and so they are more deserving of insult, etc.; 3. the lazy individual is perceived to be able to change his state at will and very quickly (if he only tries hard enough [which he is surely capable of]), while smarts can either not be change or can only be changed with long and arduous effort.

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  • Fred

    I was once accused of laziness … by a Romanian. Maybe laziness is traditionally regarded as really bad, but something happened to us in the 60s?

  • Fred

    If you’re lazy, the worst you can do is nothing; but if you’re stupid, you can make HUGELY damaging mistakes

    • Fred

      So I would rather hire a lazy person than a stupid person