Americans like to be doing something and it does not have to be anything in particular — just something.

Classically, when psychologists think about why people do what they do, they tend to look for specific goals, attitudes, and motivations. However, this may be the wrong approach as they may be missing something more general — that people just generally like to be active.

A new article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science provides a review of what experts look at when they study activity.

Author Dolores Albarracin, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said she started paying attention to people’s different levels of activity in various countries and saw how much busier people are in the U.S. relative to other areas.

“People have this inclination to do more, even if what they do is trivial,” she said.

In recent years, she has been doing research on how people feel about activity, including how easily she could change the level of activity that people aimed for.

In one set of experiments, for example, she found that getting people to think about physical activity made them more interested in political activity.

Surprisingly, the desire for activity may lead to unhealthy behaviors such as snacking on high calorie foods or other forms of impulsive behaviors. In fact, experiments have shown that the desire for activity is quite strong; people will go to a lot of trouble to maintain their desired level of activity.

Many psychologists have “the idea that people have these highly specific goals,” Albarracin said. “But quite often some significant proportion of our time is engaged in this global level—we want to do something, but what we do ends up not mattering much. You could end up with productive behavior, like work, or impulsive behavior, like drug use.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science