Doing the Dishes: A Who-Done-It Mystery Story

Doing the Dishes: A Who-Done-It Mystery Story

Posted Jan 23, 2010

The dishes are piled high in the sink. The recycling bin is overflowing. I need someone to prepare the salad for tonight's dinner. Unfortunately, kitchen conversations in our house always become mystery stories. "Who did the dishes last time," I ask. "I did" respond both of my sons.

These kitchen conversations mirror some questions raised in the shared areas of my office. Whose turn is it to buy the coffee? Why am I the only person who adds paper to the copier?

We have similar, and more difficult, discussions concerning the relative contributions made by individuals to collaborative work products. Everyone seems to think they made the most important contributions and did the major part of the work. I frequently listen to students complain about how they did all the work and that their partners were worthless deadweight.

Why can't we agree on who should do the dishes and who made the biggest contributions to a work product? One possibility is that people are exaggerating and lying. People may really know the answers in these situations and may be trying to game the system. Both my sons may know who did the dishes the last time and one may be trying to avoid the work. However, since both my sons are wonderful and honest young men, I am sure this isn't the problem in our kitchen conversations. Of course, exaggerating and lying could explain the behavior of that lousy cubical dweller down the hall.

Instead, I suspect that assigning responsibility reflects egocentric biases in memory. In essence, I can remember the things I've done more easily than I can remember the things you did. Michael Ross and Fiore Sicoly studied this in a very straightforward fashion. They asked people who shared a work responsibility what percentage of the time they performed the task. For example, ask all of us in our house how often we take out the trash: I might claim to do it 40% of the time, my wife may say she does 30% of the time, and each of my sons may claim 30%. Add those up and the trash gets taken out 130% of the time. This could be the source of that old joke about the trash going out more than I do!

We all overestimate because of the inherent egocentric biases in memory. First, I'll remember anything about me better than things about you. I already know more about myself so that makes it easier to learn and store new things about me. Second, I spend more time encoding my actions than yours. When I do the dishes, I set up the actions, do the work, wipe down the counters, and mutter about how I wish someone else was doing this onerous task. When I see you doing the dishes, I may acknowledge it and thank you, but that is the extent of my thinking about your work. Third, I am aware of all my actions and thoughts, but I probably miss many of yours. Some days I come home and there are no dirty dishes piled in the sink. I probably don't even realize that someone did the dishes. Failing to see someone else's contributions is worse when the work involves thinking about a problem. I am aware of my own thoughts, but I cannot see you thinking about a problem even when we are sitting in the same room. These egocentric biases mean that I have substantially more knowledge about my actions than yours. I'm honest when I say that I can remember that I did the dishes recently, but that I can't recall the last time you did. (In a related post, I've described how this contribute to Wall Street executives believing they deserve million dollar bonuses.)

I try to remember these memory biases and do the dishes sometimes even when I don't think it's my turn. I try to make sure and give my students proper credit on our collaborative work by paying attention to their view of who is responsible for the various aspects of the work. But even knowing all this, sometimes it seems that I am the only person who adds paper to the copy machine.