How much time do you spend washing dishes?

This seems like a straightforward question. If an opinion pollster calls you up and asks you how much time you spend washing dishes in a week, you probably wouldn’t say “I don’t know.” No one likes to say “I don’t know.” So you’d give a number.

But I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that number would be wrong. Indeed, it wouldn’t even be close to accurate, whether you’re a man or a woman. And I’d be willing to bet a lot of money on which direction you’d be off. You would overestimate.

According to studies highlighted in Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, by time use researchers Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson and Melissa Milkie, when you ask women how much time they spend washing dishes in a week, they’ll tell you 5.5 hours. Men say 2.6 hours. Ask people to keep a time diary, though, and the numbers come out very differently. Women devote, on average, 1.1 hours to washing dishes as a primary or secondary activity. Men devote 0.7 hours.

Audits find the time diary approach is more accurate than typical surveys, and the results show that men overestimate by about 400% and women by about 500%. This is a big problem if you’re trying to make any point about American life and housework and use a quick response poll as your evidence.

So what’s going on? It’s not that we’re lying. It’s a few things. First, few people have any idea how much time they spend devoted to many tasks. If you get paid by the hour you probably know how many hours you work. But doing dishes doesn’t have the same structure. Most people don’t even know that a week has 168 hours, so how would you know how much time you spend on something like dishes?

Second, few people enjoy the routine aspects of housework like scrubbing pots and pans. Because we do these things frequently, we feel like we’re always doing them, even if each instance only takes a few minutes. So we tend to overestimate.

Well, so what, you say. Here’s why this matters: many of the things we “know” about American life–that we are overworked and sleep-deprived, for instance, or that women work a second shift doing housework after work–come from quick response surveys. But if we get dish washing so wrong, why would we think these other impressions are right? The answer is that the situation is not always as it appears. This is important to keep in mind when we issue pronouncements about the modern world.



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