Angry wife and husband are having conflict because husband is never helping his wife with cleaning house.

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CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Are men really “blind” when it comes to doing household chores? Philosophers believe they may have an answer as to why many men seem to be oblivious to messes right in front of them — while women know it’s time to clean.

In a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the team found that the theory of “affordance perception” seems to play a powerful role in the disparity between men and women when it comes to household labor. The “affordance theory” says that people experience objects and situations as having actions implicitly attached.

Study authors add that men and women have been trained by society to see different possibilities for action, even as they look at the same objects. For example, a woman may see a kitchen counter and the implied action is to wipe it down. Meanwhile, men just observe a dirt-covered counter and don’t connect it with cleaning.

The philosophers say these deep-seated gender divides in domestic perception can change with the help of several societal interventions, including longer paternal leave so new fathers get used to doing household chores more often.

Is the disparity ‘invisible’ to men?

Researchers say their study, during the coronavirus pandemic, led to two questions that needed explanation. The first had do to with disparity. Why do women continue to shoulder the load at home despite working and earning more in modern society.

The second focused on invisibility. Why do many men think the division of labor at home is fairly equal, even when it’s not?

“Many point to the performance of traditional gender roles, along with various economic factors such as women taking flexible work for childcare reasons,” says Dr. Tom McClelland, from Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, in a university release.

“Yet the fact that stark inequalities in domestic tasks persisted during the pandemic, when most couples were trapped inside, and that many men continued to be oblivious of this imbalance, means this is not the full story.”

That’s where the affordance theory comes in. McClelland and co-author Prof. Paulina Sliwa say humans perceive things they see as inviting (or affording) certain actions.

“This is not just looking at the shape and size of a tree and then surmising you can climb it, but actually seeing a particular tree as climbable, or seeing a cup as drink-from-able,” says Sliwa, now at the University of Vienna.

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

‘Affordance perception’ can differ significantly from person to person

One person may see a tree and think “I can climb that!” Meanwhile, someone else looks at the same tree and says they can’t. Researchers say the same is true for objects in the kitchen. One person sees a spatula as an egg-cooking tool while their friends doesn’t know what to do with it.

“If we apply affordance perception to the domestic environment and assume it is gendered, it goes a long way to answering both questions of disparity and invisibility,” McClelland says.

The philosophers say that when women enter a kitchen, they are more likely to pick up on the “affordances” for certain household chores. Under this theory, a woman sees a dish as “needing to be washed” and the refrigerator as “needing to be re-filled.”

Thanks to generations of societal programming, many men simply see a dish as something that contains food and a refrigerator as something which stores the food. They don’t experience the same “mental tug” to actually act and perform a chore, the philosophers explain. This is when the disparity in household labor starts to grow.

“Affordances pull on your attention,” Sliwa explains. “Tasks may irritate the perceiver until done, or distract them from other plans. If resisted, it can create a felt tension. This puts women in a catch-22 situation: either inequality of labor or inequality of cognitive load.”

“Social norms shape the affordances we perceive, so it would be surprising if gender norms do not do the same,” McClelland adds. “Some skills are explicitly gendered, such 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’.”

This isn’t an excuse for men

The study authors note that the “gendered affordance perception hypothesis” is not a “get out of jail free card” for men looking to avoid chores. Despite there being a deficit in affordance perception at home, researchers are very capable of noticing that something needs to be done — by thinking instead of seeing.

“We can change how we perceive the world through continued conscious effort and habit cultivation,” McClelland says. “Men should be encouraged to resist gendered norms by improving their sensitivity to domestic task affordances.”

“A man might adopt a resolution to sweep for crumbs every time he waits for the kettle to boil, for example. Not only would this help them to do the tasks they don’t see, it would gradually retrain their perception so they start to see the affordance in the future.”

The team notes that the biggest thing society can do to help men pick up the slack at home is to provide them with more opportunities to share in the household chores — like giving fathers more time to stay home when they have a new baby.

“Our focus has been on physical actions such as sweeping or wiping, but gendered affordance perceptions could also apply to mental actions such as scheduling and remembering,” Sliwa concludes.

The findings are published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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10 Comments

  1. Carlos says:

    Plain English would be “potential”. Much more intuitive understanding than invented psychobabble word “affordance”!

  2. Resident says:

    Whats the last major city you’ve seen built by women? Automobile? Space rocket? Aircraft carrier? Oh right, none.

    Grab a mop sweetie! Lol.

    Facts.

    1. Emory Kendrick says:

      When is the last time the average woman changed her own oil, mowed the lawn, fixed a toilet, changed a light fixture, etc. Most guys do help with housework as well as do projects that women take for granted.
      These studies are simply another means of the progressives attempting to demean and feminize males……(see Belinda’s comment)

      1. Rachel Frost says:

        I cut both my front and back lawns, whilst hubby is “”relaxing”, feet up on coffee table binge watching a series ” because he’s Been a work all week”, he says. Even though I have as well.
        When a man changes your oil or fixes a light bulb etc it’s once in a blue moon job though isn’t it, that These Jobs need doing. Household chores, if only one person is doing them, wipes out several Hours a week.

  3. Belinda says:

    I don’t know any man who has done anything but hold a regular job and women still do all the s**t jobs cause it’s still a man’s world, but we are slowly getting what we are worth. Men are slobs. Period.

    1. Emory Kendrick says:

      And you wonder why no guy wants you.

    2. Larry Zorch says:

      It’s a man’s world, eh?

      It’s a FACT that you could not move out of the chair that men built after looking at the PC men invented and manufactured, to move across the floor, room and building that you live in that was built by men, to gab on your iphone invented and built by men, to go to your car that was invented and manufactured by men, drive that car on roads built by men, with traffic signals installed and built by men….to buy your groceries largely gorwn, harvested, transported by and displayed in your supermarket by men…..

      And, of course, it’s men who climb the telephone poles and install the electrical wiring into your house, who fix your sinks and toilets, who make up most of your firemen and police forces, and who fight and die in war….

      Yeah, men really have it good.. SNORT

  4. Larry Zorch says:

    What horse hockey. The authors of one American “study” on this topic said they did not include the many chores men do, because…..men like to do them! (I wish I could find the link.)

    Yeah, filling the trashbins and taking them to the curb. Repairing a broken toilet chain. Figuring out the programmable thermostat. Setting up a smart TV connection. Tracking down where the problem is on your loss-of- internet . Getting the pilot light on your cold boiler back on. Shoveling snow. Pushing a lawnmower around. Refinishing old doors and furniture.
    Painting ceilings. Fertilizing, weeding and liming your lawn. Men just LUV doing those things, so they’re not “chores”. SNORT

    In my house, aside from not ever using a sewing machine (now gathering dust in the basement), or giving birth/nursing the babies, I have done EVERY chore my wife does, but there are gazillions she leaves to me.

  5. Cosmo says:

    No man will ever do housework which will meet a woman’s standards. So if a man knows he will get chided for his effort no matter what, he will exert less effort until she stops expecting him to do anything.

  6. Michelle says:

    The meal planning, groceries, cooking, dishes, laundry, vehicle maintenance, gardening, garbage, and scheduling and transporting the children all fall to me. My husband does not get home until after 8:30pm on weeknights, and is out of the house from 9am to 4pm on Sundays. I also have the pressure to earn more than his salary in order for our finances to work out.

    Yes, men have built my house and vehicle and brought electricity to my house. I assume those were billable hours and part of their job. On a daily basis I struggle to reconcile the 25-30 hours per week I do running the house and seeing to our children while still having the pressure to earn a high salary. I default to running my own business so I have the flexibility to look after everything domestically while still earning a good wage.

    I feel unsupported and taken for granted, and it really sours relationships. I see no way out.