21(7) 926 –930
© The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission:
Why do investors trade stocks? Why do scientists make dis-
coveries? Why do gangsters fight each other? Why do nations
wage wars? And . . . why do we write papers? There are many
apparent reasons for activity. In the case of these examples,
possible reasons include the following: to make money, to
accrue fame, to protect one’s territory, and to advance science.
In this research, however, we suggest a potentially deeper rea-
son for these and myriad other activities: People dread idle-
ness, and their professed reasons for activity may be mere
justifications for keeping busy. Specifically, we propose that
people have two concurrent, yet paradoxical and conflicting,
desires: They (a) dread idleness and desire busyness, but
(b) need reasons for their busyness and will not voluntarily
choose busyness without some justification.
The notion that people dread idleness and desire busyness
is consistent with several existing lines of research, including
research showing that people dread boredom (e.g., Csikszent-
mihalyi, 2000; Fahlman, Mercer, Gaskovski, Eastwood, &
Eastwood, 2009; Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993; Smith, 1981),
that waiting is aversive (e.g., Larson, 1987; Robbins, 1978),
that work is perceived as virtuous (e.g., Furham, 1982; Mer-
rens & Garrett, 1975; Neff, 2006), that labor leads to apprecia-
tion (Norton, 2009), and that people seek varied experiences
(e.g., Zuckerman, 1994).
The idea that people desire justification for busyness is
rooted in the general finding that people are rational animals
and seek to base their decisions on reasons (e.g., Hsee, 1996;
Hsee, Yu, Zhang, & Xi, 2003; Kivetz & Simonson, 2002;
Kivetz & Zheng, 2006; Kunda, 1990; Shafir, Simonson, &
Tversky, 1993; see Xu & Schwarz, 2009, for boundaries).
Often, people do have some reason for action. They work to
earn salaries and exercise to improve health. It is silly to exert
effort without purpose.1
Our proposition―that people desire busyness yet are reluc-
tant to seek busyness without reason―is too general to be
tested in a few experiments. The experiments reported here
tested two somewhat more specific hypotheses, one about
choice and one about experience, that were derived from our
• Hypothesis 1 concerns choice and states that any
reason―even a specious justification―can mobilize
idle people to seek busyness. In other words, when
given a choice between busyness and idleness, more
people will choose busyness if there is a justifica-
tion than if there is not, even if the justification is
• Hypothesis 2 concerns experience. Because people
prefer busyness, we hypothesize that those who are
busy are happier than those who are idle. We believe
that the preference for busyness can be so strong that
Christopher K. Hsee, University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, 5807
S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
Idleness Aversion and the Need for
Christopher K. Hsee1, Adelle X. Yang1, and Liangyan Wang2
1Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, and 2Antai School of Management, Shanghai Jiaotong University
There are many apparent reasons why people engage in activity, such as to earn money, to become famous, or to advance
science. In this report, however, we suggest a potentially deeper reason: People dread idleness, yet they need a reason to be
busy. Accordingly, we show in two experiments that without a justification, people choose to be idle; that even a specious
justification can motivate people to be busy; and that people who are busy are happier than people who are idle. Curiously, this
last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy. Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue
may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.
idleness aversion, happiness, motivation, justification
Received 5/23/09; Revision accepted 12/14/09
Need for Justifiable Busyness
even people who are forced (assigned) to be busy
are happier than those who are idle. In other words,
busy people are happier than idle people, regardless
of whether they choose to be busy or are forced to
These hypotheses were tested in the following experiments.
Participants (98 college students from a large public univer-
sity) were told that their task was to fill out multiple confiden-
tial surveys about their school and that they could do nothing
else during the experiment. After leaving their belongings
(e.g., cell phones, books) with the experimenter, participants
were given the first survey. Upon finishing, they were told that
the second survey would not be ready for another 15 min and
that they were to drop their completed first survey at a desig-
nated location during the waiting period. There were two such
locations, one nearby (right outside the room) and the other far
away (a 12- to 15-min round-trip walk). Participants could
either deliver the survey to the nearby location and wait out
the remaining time (the idle option) or deliver the survey to the
faraway location, return, and then wait out the remaining time
(the busy option). In both cases, they would receive a piece of
candy when they dropped off the survey, as a token of
The experiment consisted of two between-participants con-
ditions: same-candy and different-candy. In the same-candy
condition, the candies offered at the two locations were identi-
cal: In both locations, participants could choose either a milk
chocolate or a dark chocolate.
In the different-candy condition, the candies offered at the
two locations were different: At one location, only milk
chocolates were offered; at the other location, only dark choc-
olates were offered. Which type of chocolate was offered
at which location was counterbalanced, and pretesting indi-
cated that the two types of candies were equally attractive,
χ2(1, N = 28) = 0.14, n.s. Furthermore, to prevent participants
from making any inference about the quality of the candy
based on the location at which it was offered, we told them that
the candy offered at each location was randomly decided.
Note that the same-candy condition offered no justification
for walking to the farther location. The walk to the faraway
location in this condition would seem foolish, as in either loca-
tion one could choose either the milk or the dark chocolate. By
contrast, the different-candy condition offered a sound justifi-
cation for walking to the faraway location, because one could
say, “I prefer the candy there,” even though the two candies
were prejudged as equally attractive and counterbalanced.
At the end of the 15-min period, all participants were given
a questionnaire that asked, “How good did you feel in the last
15 minutes?” Responses were made on a scale from 1 (not
good at all) to 5 (very good).2 Participants were then debriefed
Results and discussion
The experiment included two dependent variables: choice
(nearby or faraway location) and experience (feelings during
the 15 min).
Choice. Participants’ choices confirmed Hypothesis 1: More
participants chose the busy (faraway) option in the different-
candy condition than in the same-candy condition, χ2(1, N =
98) = 7.13, p < .01 (see Table 1). Further analyses revealed that
in the same-candy condition, less than 50% of the respondents
went to the faraway location, χ2(1, N = 47) = 12.96, p < .001,
yet in the different-candy condition, more than 50% did, χ2(1,
N = 47) = 3.24, p = .07. It should be noted that the increased
choice of the faraway location in the different-candy condition
cannot be attributed to the uncertainty of the quality of the
candies at the two locations, because this uncertainty cannot
explain why more than 50% of the participants chose the far-
away location (see the appendix).
Experience. Participants’ ratings of their feelings confirmed
Hypothesis 2: Busy participants (who walked to the faraway
location) reported greater happiness than idle participants
(who chose the nearby location and waited afterward), and this
was true in both the same-candy condition, t(49) = 3.23, p <
.01, and the different-candy condition, t(45) = 3.83, p < .01
(see Table 1). These results constitute an interesting inconsis-
tency between choice and experience: When given a choice,
most individuals in the same-candy condition chose the nearby
location, yet those who went farther ended up being happier.
Table 1. Results of Experiment 1
Choice: participants who chose
the faraway (busy) option (%)
Participants who chose
the faraway option
Participants who chose
the nearby option
Same-candy (no justification)
Note: Happiness was rated on a scale from 1 (not good at all) to 5 (very good).
Hsee et al.
Was this inconsistency due to misprediction (i.e., underes-
timation of the joy of walking or the pain of waiting)? To
address this question, we described the experimental proce-
dure to another group of participants (N = 52) and asked them
to predict whether dropping the survey in the faraway location
or in the nearby location would generate greater happiness
during the 15-min period. Most (64%) accurately predicted
that going to the faraway location would result in greater hap-
piness, χ2(1, N = 52) = 19.07, p < .001. This result rules out
misprediction as an alternative explanation for our finding.
It seems that people know that busyness yields happiness,
but if they lack justification for busyness, they will choose
idleness. This inconsistency between predicted experience and
choice reflects people’s desire to base decisions on rules and
reasons rather than on feelings; similar inconsistencies have been
documented elsewhere (e.g., Arkes & Blumer, 1985; Hsee
et al., 2003; Hsee, Yang, Gu, & Chen, 2009).
One may also wonder if the increased happiness among
participants who traveled to the faraway location was due to
postchoice cognitive dissonance. However, postchoice cogni-
tive dissonance cannot explain why participants in the follow-
up prediction condition also expected greater happiness from
traveling to the faraway location, nor can it explain the results
of Experiment 2—that people who were forced to travel to the
faraway location also reported greater happiness.
Experiment 1 demonstrated that people who voluntarily
choose busyness are happier than those who voluntarily
choose idleness. Experiment 2 was designed to demonstrate
that people who are forced into busyness are happier than
those who are forced into idleness.
Participants (54 college students from a large public univer-
sity) were assigned to either a forced-nearby (idle) condition
or a forced-faraway (busy) condition. The procedure in both
conditions was identical to the procedure in the same-candy
condition of Experiment 1, except that participants were
instructed as to which of the two locations they should walk to.
That is, in the forced-nearby condition, participants were sim-
ply instructed to deliver the survey to the nearby location and
wait; in the forced-faraway condition, participants were
instructed to deliver the survey to the faraway location, return,
and wait. Neither group had a choice. At the end of the 15-min
period, participants answered the same question about their
feelings as in Experiment 1.
Results and discussion
Results confirmed Hypothesis 2: Participants in the forced-
faraway (busy) condition reported greater happiness (M = 4.01)
than those in the forced-nearby (idle) condition (M = 2.36),
t(52) = 5.00, p < .001. A comparison with the results in the
same-candy condition of Experiment 1 revealed an intriguing
pattern: In Experiment 1, in which participants could choose
between idleness and busyness, most chose idleness, yet in
Experiment 2, in which there was no choice, participants
forced into busyness reported greater happiness than those
who were idle. These findings corroborate accumulating evi-
dence suggesting that people do not always choose what is
best for their welfare (e.g., Benartzi & Thaler, 2004; Hsee,
Hastie, & Chen, 2008; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008).
Replication of findings
Across two experiments, we demonstrated that people choose
to be idle if they do not have reason to be busy, but that even a
specious justification can prompt them to seek busyness. In
addition, people are happier when busy than when idle, even if
busyness is forced upon them.
We replicated these findings in another context. In a bracelet-
evaluation experiment, participants were given a premade
bracelet and asked to wait 15 min, during which time they
could either do nothing (the idle option) or disassemble and
reassemble the bracelet (the busy option). Some participants
were told that if they disassembled the bracelet, they had to
reassemble it into the original design. Others were told that if
they disassembled the bracelet they had to reassemble it into a
different design; pretests indicated that the second design was
just as attractive as the original design, and participants were
told that the two designs were equally useful for the experi-
ment. Notice that the same-design condition in this experiment
resembled the same-candy condition in Experiment 1 and pro-
vided no justification for participants’ reassembly of the brace-
let, and that the different-design condition resembled the
different-candy condition in Experiment 1 and provided a jus-
tification for participants’ reassembly of the bracelet. Again,
results supported Hypothesis 1: Most participants in the same-
design condition chose to sit idly, and most in the different-
design condition chose to reassemble the bracelet. Results also
supported Hypothesis 2: Participants who reassembled the
bracelet reported greater happiness. Together, these findings
replicated the findings reported earlier and reinforced our
proposition that humans concurrently desire both busyness
and a justification for busyness.
We speculate that the concurrent desires for busyness and for
justification are rooted in evolution. In their strife for survival,
human ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce
resources; expending energy without purpose could have jeop-
ardized survival. With modern means of production, however,
most people today no longer expend much energy on basic
survival needs, so they have excessive energy, which they like
Need for Justifiable Busyness
to release through action. Yet the long-formed tendency to
conserve energy lingers, making people wary of expending
effort without purpose.
Our research also complements recent research by Ariely,
Kamenica, and Prelec (2008) on humans’ search for meaning.
Whereas the work of Ariely and his colleagues suggests that
people work in order to search for meaning (i.e., achievement
and recognition), our study suggests that people search for
meaning in order to work. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus’ pun-
ishment, imposed by Zeus, was to eternally roll a rock toward
the top of a hill, never to arrive there. The research of Ariely
et al. predicts that Sisyphus would have been happier if Zeus
had allowed the rock to reach the top of the hill and had then
recognized Sisyphus’ achievement. Our research suggests that
Sisyphus was better off with his punishment than he would
have been with a punishment of an eternity of doing nothing,
and that he might have chosen rolling a rock over idleness if he
had been given a slight reason for doing it.
Idleness is potentially malignant. If idle people remain idle, they
are miserable. If idle people become busy, they will be happier,
but the outcome may or may not be desirable, depending on the
value of the chosen activity. Busyness can be either constructive
or destructive. Ideally, idle people should devote their energy to
constructive courses, but it is often difficult to predict which
actions are constructive (e.g., are business investments or scien-
tific discoveries always constructive?), and not every idle indi-
vidual is capable of constructive contributions. Idle people often
engage in destructive busyness (from inner-city crimes to cross-
border wars); as Hippocrates observed in Decorum, “Idleness
and lack of occupation tend―nay are dragged―towards evil”
(Hippocrates, quoted in Peterson, 1946, p. 88).
We advocate a third kind of busyness: futile busyness,
namely, busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent
idleness. Such activity is more realistic than constructive
busyness and less evil than destructive busyness. However, as
we demonstrated in the no-justification (same-candy or same-
design) condition of our research, most people will not volun-
tarily choose futile busyness.
This is where paternalism can play a role (Thaler & Sun-
stein, 2008). For example, homeowners may increase the hap-
piness of their idle housekeepers by letting in some mice and
prompting the housekeepers to clean up. Governments may
increase the happiness of idle citizens by having them build
bridges that are actually useless. Indeed, some such interven-
tions already exist: Airports have tried to increase the happi-
ness (or reduce the unhappiness) of passengers waiting at the
baggage carousel by increasing the distance between the gate
and the baggage claim area, forcing them to walk far rather
than wait idly (Larson, 1987). Similar intentions may be
applied at the societal level. Although these strategies may not
be ethical, we believe that futile busyness trumps both idleness
and destructive busyness.
Here, we prove that our findings cannot be explained norma-
tively. Let p (0 ≤ p ≤ 1) denote the proportion of partici-
pants who preferred the candy offered at the faraway location,
q (0 ≤ q ≤ 1) denote the proportion of participants who pre-
ferred to walk far, and w (0 ≤ w ≤ 1) denote the relative impor-
tance of candy type over the distance walked. Assume that
p, q, and w are mutually independent.
Normatively, the proportion of participants choosing the
faraway location should be q in the same-candy condition and
0.5w + q(1 – w) in the different-candy condition. The reason is
this: In the same-candy condition, choice should depend only
on q. In the different-candy condition, choice should be a
weighted combination of p and q, namely, w * p + (1 – w) * q,
but because the candies at the two locations are equally attrac-
tive, p should be .5 and w * p + (1 – w) * q becomes 0.5w +
q(1 – w).
Mathematically, it is impossible that 0.5w + q(1 – w)
exceeds both q and 50%; that is, it is impossible for the pro-
portion of participants choosing the faraway location in the
different-candy condition to exceed both the proportion of
such participants in the same-candy condition and 50%. But
that is what we found in Experiment 1 and replicated in the
bracelet study, described in the General Discussion. Therefore,
these findings cannot be explained normatively.
We thank Zach Burns, Xianchi Dai, Nick Epley, Joshua Klayman,
Yang Yang, and Joe Zhang for helpful suggestions at different stages
of this project.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
We thank the Center for Decision Research at the University of
Chicago Booth School of Business, the Templeton Foundation, and the
National Science Foundation of China for research support.
1. Our research concerns only moderate levels of idleness and busy-
ness. If an idleness option engenders extreme boredom, one needs
no justification to escape it; if an option for keeping busy involves
extreme toil, one would not seek it.
2. Although retrospective evaluation is sometimes inaccurate (e.g., it
may be duration insensitive), there is no reason to suspect that it was
systematically biased in the context of this experiment (e.g., duration
was held constant in this research).
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