About the Author

Honey's main interests are online dating, long distance dating, and long term relationships. She met her boyfriend on MySpace and they have been exclusive since their first date over three years ago. Currently they live in Tempe, Arizona. Honey graduated with her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric in May 2009. You can contact Honey via email here or online here.

People are Inherently Lazy: Or, Why We Over-Rank Ourselves

In this post on his blog, Evan Marc Katz asked his readers to rank themselves in four categories: Looks, Personality, Intelligence, and Career.  Both Lance and I couldn’t resist commenting, and Lance also blogged an excellent reaction here.  It is pretty evident from the comments to his blog as well as the original article on the Freakonomics bulletin here that most people have a tendency to seriously overestimate themselves.  EMK hypothesizes,

The good news is that having a combination of self-esteem and self-delusion seems to be exactly what allows us to function. How would we feel if we didn’t believe we’re above average in every single way?

Although that is insightful and seems at least partially true, I also can’t help but feel that there must be a little more to it.  In a comment on Lance’s blog about whether you can teach an old dog new tricks, I mention something that I always told my students:

People are inherently lazy. Therefore, to convince them to take action, you must convince them not that your position is morally superior, but that they have more to lose by doing nothing than they do by taking action.

The fabulous cheekie suggested that I write a post where I expand on that idea, so here we go. 

What Laziness Means (In Practical Terms)

In most persuasive writing, simple agreement is not the goal–action is.  Say I’m writing an article about who you should vote for in the Presidential election.  After you finish reading, I don’t want you to say, “Wow, Honey really had a point there, I agree!”  I want you to 1) get to a voting booth on election day, even if it’s inconvenient, and 2) vote for who I recommend.

Unfortunately, I’m not going to get you to do that by saying that Candidate A is more educated, compassionate, reasonable, etc., than Candidate B.  I’m going to get you to do it by saying that if you don’t vote at all, Candidate B is likely to win–and if Candidate B wins, then your taxes are going to triple, your health insurance will be cancelled, and your dog will be shot.

The consequences of inaction are now clearly greater than the consequences of taking 2 hours off work, driving to the polling place, and casting that all-important vote for Candidate A.  So I’ve convinced you to take action.

Okay, got it.

How This Relates to Over-Ranking Ourselves

However, the consequences listed above are obviously extreme examples; it’s almost never that easy to convince someone to change in real life.  It’s even harder, sometimes, to convince yourself to change because in a sense you’re going against your own natural tendency towards laziness.  In fact, think of it this way

The reason that we try so hard to convince other people to change is that it’s easier to try and get someone else to change than it is to change ourselves.

Therefore, people may overestimate themselves not just because they’d feel bad if they ranked themselves below average, but because they’d have to take action if they felt they were below average.  And taking action is something that people will almost never do unless the results are

  1. immediate,
  2. significant, and
  3. guaranteed.

We all know that when it comes to self-improvement, the results are seldom immediate or guaranteed–and the more significant a result you desire, the less likely #1 and #3 become. For example,

  • It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the attractiveness scale than it is to quit drinking beer or go to the gym five days a week.
  • It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the personality scale than it is to go on tons of dates or talk to everyone in the room at a party.
  • It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the intelligence scale than it is to read philosophy in my spare time or get a PhD.
  • It’s easier to convince myself that I’m an 8 or 9 on the career scale than it is to meet with my boss and create a plan for a promotion or actively seek another job.

So we’re willing to put what might seem to be a disproportionate amount of effort into convincing ourselves and the world that we’re great, because we’d have to put far more work into actually becoming great.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to end with the observation that I think we sometimes underestimate how valuable change can be.  One of the reasons I admire Lance so much is that he’s willing to deliberately (IMO) under-rank himself in so many categories in order to force himself to change.  The fact that he perceives the potential payoff of self-improvement as so much more valuable than the effort and frustration necessary to achieve true change is nothing short of amazing.

Also, I want to throw a quick clarification out–I’m not trying to say that people are incapable of ranking themselves accurately or that anyone’s incapable of change and self-improvement.  I also don’t think that laziness is necessarily negative in this context.  You could just as easily refer to what I call “laziness” conservation of energy and claim that people don’t take action unless they know it’s worth it.  And, if you think about it, why should they?

But I do think one of the keys to attaining a high ranking in any of Evan’s four categories is recognizing when you’re justifying your life rather than working to improve it.


  • http://www.evanmarckatz.com Evan Marc Katz

    Great observation, Honey. Wish I wrote it myself!

    Keep up the good work.


  • http://40ssingleness.blogspot.com/ lisaq

    I completely agree that we tend to underestimate how valuable change can be. We have to be able to understand the benefits we reap if we get over ourselves, get off our lazy butts, and do something.

    Changing to increase our ranking is damn hard work and people who can’t see the immediate pay off will opt to just take the path of least resistance. Laziness as you said.

    The trick is to have enough foresight to see what rewards you will reap. For me, realizing how bad it really was and being able to see what I could gain were the things that pushed me into action.

    lisaqs last blog post..The First Mr. Unavailable in My Life

  • http://ipitw.blogspot.com/ TentCamper

    I completely agree. Laziness will get you nowhere. If you put in a bit of effort and are a good, honest, confident person…success is sure to follow.

    Love your blog. I have added you to my blogroll.

  • http://cheekiebacktalk.blogspot.com cheekie

    It is indeed much easier in the short term to overestimate yourself.
    No accountabily, no remorse, an appearance of ‘not caring’.
    Also, we are led to believe that thinking positively is the catalyst for change. Therefore if you think you are a 9, others will perceive you that way.
    We all know people who think they are, and we know damn well they aren’t.

    The people I most admire are the ones who see their faults clearly, see the changes needed – in order to be who THEY want to be, not society, and make positive choices, not false positive preconceptions of what they THINK they should be.

    I always underrank myself. Always. And it isn’t a low self esteem issue, it’s just that I know I am not where I want to or need to be in certain areas. A dear friend of mine told me the other night, as I was discussing this with him, that I am way way more than I think I am.
    I was flattered, especially about the 15 on a scale of 1-10 in attractiveness…lol…but I still don’t believe it where it matters.
    In my head and heart.

    I was also brought up to believe that overestimated your value is a sure way to get knocked down, fast and hard.

    You have to earn it, believe it and value every effort you make.

    Human nature is funny, we are a society run by what we don’t have as opposed to what we do. No matter what, there’s always more.
    Advertising has been built on the very principles you described above.
    And it works.

    and btw, thanks for calling me fabulous!

  • http://thedateabledork.typepad.com The Dateable Dork

    Honestly, I think the whole idea of ranking yourself is a little silly, but it does get you to think about an imporant question: are you really where you want to be in those four categories? I could care less how I “rank” compared to other people, as long as I’m happy with what I’m doing, where I am in life, etc. If you think about one of those categories and realize you’d really like to improve, that’s a great catalyst for action. But do I really care if I’m less attractive or intelligent than the next person? Not really…

    … especially because I’m a 10 in all four categories. : ) Ha!!!

    The Dateable Dorks last blog post..An open letter to my future lover

  • http://www.baggagereclaim.co.uk NML

    This was brilliant! I find that women tend to overvalue superficial things like the looks, intelligence etc but they actually undervalue themselves overall. They want to change but fear going through with it so many can stay trapped in inertia and blaming others for their position! I have to write about this right away!
    Honey, you are a frickin genius!
    Oh and congrats to you both for joining Brazen Careerist x

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  • http://www.barbaraling.com Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach

    I believe that so long as you’re brave enough to take ownership of your actions, your personal “rankings” don’t matter – it’s what your actions show about you that makes the impression.

    Data points, Barbara

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  • http://www.over50lifeinsurancex.com George Sherwin

    I don’t beleive that people are inherently lazy or have low self-esteem but most of my life I have been plagued with shyness and it stopped me from doing a lot of things…..

    Anyway, it sure is good to get good information for people like me. All I can say is keep up the good work ’cause it is appreciated, ttyl…