Men and women have drastically different views on mess

woman cleaning mess while man sits

Often household chores tend to be split into more ‘masculine’ and more ‘feminine’ tasks, but not all chores are created equal. Deep cleaning the bathroom is miles away from taking out the bins. While mowing the lawn and washing the dishes aren’t on the same level, effort-wise.

Academics from the University of Cambridge now believe women do the majority of household chores because men do not see mess in the same way.

Apparently, men looking at a pile of dishes in the sink or smears on the kitchen counter will see disorder. While women view it as a job in need of completing, and they often feel the urge to do so.

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The theorists believe that these perceived differences come down to how each gender is raised. Social training during childhood and early adulthood wires the brains of men and women differently.

Females, according to them, are instilled with an instinctive urge to keep things neat and tidy if they encounter a mess whereas men, simply put, never get that compulsion. As a result, this could lead to the notion of women doing more housework as a natural default. This can lead to a difficult situation where a woman is trapped between doing jobs as soon as they need doing while trying not to solely shoulder the domestic burden

The Cambridge philosophers investigated why women, on the whole, are left to do more housework than men and why men fail to see this imbalance.

The issue, they believe, is that men and women see everything in different ways. They have dubbed this phenomenon the “affordance theory”.

The philosophers write in their paper: “A floor can afford sweeping, dishes can afford cleaning, mess can afford tidying, a crying infant can afford nappy changing, and so on. We suggest that for many domestic tasks, women are more likely to perceive the corresponding domestic task affordance.”

Read: How to make chores quicker and easier

Professor Paulina Sliwa, a philosopher at the University of Vienna who worked on the topic while at the University of Cambridge, says this mechanism is backed up by science.

“Neuroscience has shown that perceiving an affordance can trigger neural processes preparing you for physical action,” she says. “This can range from a slight urge to overwhelming compulsion, but it often takes mental effort not to act on an affordance.”

Every person sees a specific thing and perceives it differently. For example, one person might look at a structure and think it is easily climbable whereas another might think it’s impossible.

This same idea can be applied to mess and clutter around the home; one individual may look at a carpet and think ‘vacuum’ whereas another may see the same carpet and deem it ignorable.

Dr Tom McClelland, from Cambridge University’s department of history and philosophy of science, says that applying this theory to the home might explain the inequality in chore workload. The team believes that men and women see the domestic situation differently as a result of how they were raised.

“This puts women in a catch-22 situation: either inequality of labour or inequality of cognitive load,” Prof. Sliwa said.

“Some skills are explicitly gendered, such as cleaning or grooming, and girls are expected to do more domestic chores than boys. This trains their ways of seeing the domestic environment, to see a counter as ‘to be wiped’,” Dr McClelland said.

Read: Gender differences in time use are narrowing, but slowly

However, the Cambridge academics make it clear that the “gendered affordance perception hypothesis”, as it has been called, doesn’t absolve men of any household duties. Yes, men may not have the same automatic impulse to tidy up a mess when they enter a space, but that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of making that decision to get cleaning in their own time.

“We can change how we perceive the world through continued conscious effort and habit cultivation,” said Dr McClelland. The research is published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

So, if it feels like your partner is oblivious to the housework, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ignoring their responsibilities – it might just be a perception thing.

Do you feel the urge to clean when you see a mess? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Written by Ellie Baxter

Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.

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  1. If certain things in the house are not done there are consequences re hygiene, eating, having clothes suitable for work or school (ie clean) and also because if a choice not to do something is made doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be done at all. It just needs to be done later. That is why people choose to do it. Not because they are geared that way. Eventually we are forced to by the consequences and outcomes of not doing it. The repetitious and cumulative nature of housework means not doing it is never really an option as that research seems to suggest, except where there was someone else to do it, ie paid or partner. If I chose not to see it then I wouldn’t be able to eat, or feed people, would have nothing to wear and lots of things would no longer be possible to do. There is also the matter of men who criticise their partners domestic skills. Many men still do have expectations of a certain type of home life that they expect women to provide.

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