Why Men Think They’re Doing More Chores Than They Actually Are

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Low section of young man vacuuming
Photo: Hill Street Studios/Blend Images/Corbis

Men are doing more chores around the house — just not as many as they think they are doing. That’s according to a report from the New York Times earlier this week, which cited recent data from the Pew Research Center, showing that while men believe they’re sharing household tasks equally with their wives, the women’s answers in the surveys countered that, no, actually, they’re the ones doing most of the work. Unfortunately for the guys, the women’s answers are backed up by time-use surveys, which track the minutiae of how Americans spend their days. 

But, really, this is nothing new. Since at least the 1970s, researchers have studied the discrepancies between what married couples say they are doing around the house as compared to what is actually, logically possible. At home — and at work, too, for that matter — most of us believe we are doing most of the work, a trick of human egocentrism that psychologists call overclaiming. 

For example, researchers at the University of Waterloo asked husbands and wives — separately — how much work they believed they contributed to a variety of household happenings, including things like cleaning or making breakfast for the kids. Specifically, the researchers asked each person to estimate what percentage they believed they were personally responsible for; they then took each of those figures and added them together. “Logically, this sum cannot exceed 100 percent,” University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley writes in his 2014 book Mindwise. “If I claim that I make breakfast 80 percent of the time and my wife claims that she makes breakfast 60 percent of the time, then our kids are apparently eating breakfast 140 percent of the time. Not possible.” And yet this is indeed what the researchers found — again and again, the sums exceeded 100 percent.

What’s especially interesting here, however, is that this didn’t just happen when couples were asked about the helpful household activities, like chores. The researchers also asked them to estimate how often they did annoying stuff around the house, too, like picking fights or making messes. Here, too, the added-together estimates exceeded 100 percent.

So this suggests that overclaiming isn’t purely a result of trying to make yourself look better. Instead, it’s an example of how self-centered most of us are. You can call to mind the times that you cleaned (and wrecked) the kitchen more easily than you can remember the times your partner did, and so you just assume you’re doing most of it. This happens at work, too, as Epley and his colleagues found when they turned an eye to their own field of psychology research. When they asked co-authors of academic papers to estimate what percentage they believed they had contributed to the final result, they came up with some ridiculous figures, ones that far exceeded 100 percent. It’s not exactly that you believe your work is superior as compared to other people — it’s more that other people and their contributions don’t even cross your mind.

And yet, as the Times points out, the data show that while men may be delusional about their domestic activities, women really are doing most of the work around the house. Fortunately, there is an incredibly simple way to bring dudes back down to earth here. “Unlike lots of afflictions that you can’t do anything about, you can overcome this with just a little bit of attention paid to everyone else,” Epley told Science of Us back in May.

In a 2006 paper he co-authored on overclaiming, he and Eugene M. Caruso of Harvard asked people in one experiment to pause for a moment and try to think first of what their partner had contributed to a collaborative project before they thought about what they themselves had done. As Caruso said in an email earlier this year, “We find that this exercise reduces, and sometimes eliminates, overclaiming of credit.” So get out of your own head, and maybe wash a few additional dishes while you’re at it. 

Why Men Think They’re Doing More Chores