No one wants to be the person who’s stuck doing everything there is to do around the apartment, cleaning all the messes that your lazy schlub of a roommate keeps making. But while a clear division of labor can go a long way toward keeping the domestic peace — “You do the trash and the dishes, I clean the bathroom and handle the vacuuming” — it’s still not a foolproof strategy. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely recently explained in The Wall Street Journal, even when we make it clear who’s in charge of what and everyone’s taking care of their own chores the way they’re supposed to, it can be easy to grow resentful. The reason: We tend to overestimate how much work our own tasks require, and underestimate the effort the other person puts into theirs.
To be fair, it’s easy to fall into this trap; when you get up close and personal with the shower and a scrub brush, you understand the job in a way your roommate doesn’t. All they know is whether or not the shower’s still got all those gross hairs in it. “The particulars of our own chores are clear to us, but we tend to view our partners’ labors only in terms of the outcomes,” Ariely wrote:
We discount their contributions because we understand them only superficially. We don’t see the details of the work that the other person puts in. We tell ourselves, “I take out the trash, which is a complex task that requires expertise, finesse, and an eye for detail. My spouse, on the other hand, just takes care of the bills, which is one relatively simple thing to do.”
There is one way around it, according to Ariely: Gain a little insight. Ask the other person to tell you in detail about all the steps that go into their chores, or, better yet, switch jobs every once in a while. Maybe you divided things up the way you did to appeal to everyone’s strengths and dislikes — you handle utility payments because you’re better with money, or they genuinely enjoy grocery shopping — but it can still be helpful to get a firsthand sense of what it takes to do what they do.