These Dishes Didn’t Wash Themselves

Getting credit for unnoticed work

Posted Nov 22, 2016

Does anyone ever notice the work you do? Think about your unnoticed housework. All of those dishes washed and all of that laundry folded. But no one ever shows any sign of appreciation. Is there a way to get people to notice your work and thank you for doing it?

I was recently having a discussion with some of my students about change blindness and the problem of unnoticed housework became the focus of our conversation. Maybe you’ve experienced the problem of the unnoticed housework. You do the dishes. No one notices. You wash the laundry. No one thanks you. The trash is gone from below the sink and everyone seems to think that magic has made the trash disappear. Are there clean toilets? You know those toilets didn’t clean themselves.

Why don’t people notice? Why doesn’t anyone ever thank you for your work? Can’t they see the difference?

Actually, maybe they can’t see the difference. I’m not saying that your family and roommates can’t see that things are clean. I’m sure they appreciate living in a nice place (no really, I’m sure they appreciate it). But maybe the problem is that they just can’t see that anything has changed. They don’t notice that there used to be a pile of dirty dishes and now the counter is clean.

Failure to notice changes may be a critical feature of failures to be appreciative. Change blindness is the failure to notice that things have changed. We think that we are alert to our environment. But in reality, we keep only a vague idea of the world in our heads. There are wonderful demonstrations available of change blindness. In simple demonstrations, you try to find the difference between two versions of the same picture. The screen in front of you alternates between these versions with a gray screen between each (which makes the picture appear to flicker). There is something different about the two versions, but finding that difference is really hard.

There are also movies of change blindness. With each change in camera angle some change is made to the scene. Can people see the changes? Even when warned, you will have a hard time catching any of these changes. (And here are a couple of fun examples for you to try: a murder mystery version and an awkward conversation.) People are frequently blind to the change.

How bad are people at detecting changes? Even if the person you are talking with changes to a different person you may fail to notice. Simons and Levin (1998) created a live version of change blindness. One researcher walks up to a stranger and asks for directions. Next two men with a door walk between the conversation partners. As the door passes, the researcher asking for directions helps carry away the door while someone new stops to continue the request for directions. About half of the people failed to notice that their conversation partner changed. (And here is a link to a video of someone failing to notice in the door study.)

We expect dramatic changes to capture our attention. But we regularly fail to notice all sorts of changes.

So of course no one notices when you make a change in the house. They can’t see that the dishes have been cleaned and put away. They don’t notice that the laundry hamper is now empty and drawers filled with clean underwear. Of course you are also probably failing to notice the work that other people do and failing to show appreciation. All of us frequently experience change blindness.

But my students and I came up with a possible solution. Leave the task partially unfinished. For housework, you can wash the dishes and even put most of them away. But leave some clean dishes on the counter waiting to be put away. Wash the laundry, fold it, but leave it on top of the dresser instead of putting it away in the drawers. If you run the vacuum, maybe you shouldn’t put the vacuum away. Sure you should take the trash out, but maybe don’t put the trash can all the way back in its place.

Maybe when the clean dishes and laundry are directly in someone’s face, then that person will notice. But I can’t promise that this will work. People are remarkably adept at failing to notice changes. Oh, did you get a haircut?


Simons, D.J., & Levin, D. T. (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5, 644-649.

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