The Wrong Person Is Probably Doing the Dishes in Your House

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 21 2012 8:00 AM

You’re Dividing the Chores Wrong

No, you shouldn’t always unload the dishwasher because you’re better at it.

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To “optimize” your family efficiency (every economist’s ultimate goal—and yours, too), you want to equalize effectiveness on the final task each person is doing. Your partner does the dishes, mows the lawn, and makes the grocery list. You do the cooking, laundry, shopping, cleaning, and paying the bills.  This may seem imbalanced, but when you look at it, you see that by the time your partner gets to the grocery-list task, he is wearing thin and starting to nod off. It’s all he can do to figure out how much milk you need. In fact, he is just about as good at that as you are when you get around to paying the bills, even though that’s your fifth task. 

If you then made your partner also do the cleaning—so it was an even four and four—the house would be a disaster, since he is already exhausted by his third chore while you are still doing fine. This system may well end up meaning one person does more, but it is unlikely to result in one person doing everything. 

Once you’ve decided you need to divide up the chores in this way, how should you decide who does what? One option would be randomly assigning tasks; another would be having each person do some of everything. One spousal-advice website I read suggested you should divide tasks based on which ones you like the best. None of these are quite right. (In the last case, how would anyone ever end up with the job of cleaning the bathroom?)

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To decide who does what, we need more economics. Specifically, the principle of comparative advantage. Economists usually talk about this in the context of trade. Imagine Finland is better than Sweden at making both reindeer hats and snowshoes. But they are much, much better at the hats and only a little better at the snowshoes. The overall world production is maximized when Finland makes hats and Sweden makes snowshoes.

We say that Finland has an absolute advantage in both things but a comparative advantage only in hats. This principle is part of the reason economists value free trade, but that’s for another column (and probably another author). But it’s also a guideline for how to trade tasks in your house. You want to assign each person the tasks on which he or she has a comparative advantage. It doesn’t matter that you have an absolute advantage in everything. If you are much, much better at the laundry and only a little better at cleaning the toilet, you should do the laundry and have your spouse get out the scrub brush. Just explain that it’s efficient!

In our case, it was easy. Other than using the grill—which I freely admit is the husband domain—I’m much, much better at cooking. And I was only moderately better at the dishes. So he got the job of cleaning up after meals, even though his dishwasher loading habits had already come under scrutiny. The good news is another economic principle I hadn’t even counted on was soon in play: learning by doing. As people do a task, they improve at it. Eighteen months into this new arrangement the dishwasher is almost a work of art: neat rows of dishes and everything carefully screened for “top-rack only” status. I, meanwhile, am forbidden from getting near the dishwasher. Apparently, there is a risk that I’ll “ruin it.” 

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