Seth Slater M.F.A.

The Dolphin Divide

How Often Does the Laundry Get Done?

Laundry washing strategies predictive of stress levels

Posted May 31, 2018

Psychologically speaking, it may not matter whether you separate lights from darks, opt for a warm water or cold water wash, or how long you allow the spin cycle to run.  But if you want to predict someone’s overall personal stress level, simply ask one key question about the laundry: How often does it get done? 

Most people tend to subscribe to one of two strategic methods for tackling chores and tasks of all kinds, including doing the laundry.

There are the “all-at-oncers” and the “little-at-a-timers”.  All-at-oncers save the laundry up, tackle the wash all in one go, and then coast until the next time the wash needs to get done.  All of it.  Little-at-a-timers are hardly ever done doing the laundry because they do smaller loads more frequently.

Guess who tends to have the higher, overall stress level in life?

Think of it this way: Given the choice, most of us would rather skip reading a 10-page scientific journal article filled with jargon about experimental methodologies and opt instead for a shorter, more reader-friendly version written in standard English.

The question is “Why?” and the answer is simple.  Because one version is less daunting than the other.

From a behavioral psychology point of view, the short, easy article sets us up to succeed.  There is less work to do, so we accomplish our objective (reading the article) more quickly.  It is also easier to understand, so we find our reading more enjoyable.  The task itself has been set up to be more reinforcing than it is challenging.  We’ve accomplished something, and we feel good about ourselves for having read it.

The long-term effect of our good feeling is that we will be more likely to repeat our reading behavior in the future.

If, on the other hand, we force ourselves to slog through the more challenging article, we may still feel a sense of accomplishment at the end, only this time our sense of achievement is mitigated by the sheer magnitude of our effort.  We won’t be as likely to tackle similar such articles in the future.

Okay, back to the laundry. 

Of the two camps of washing strategists, it’s the little-at-a-timers who are more likely to report feeling energized upon completion of their task.  The all-at-oncers, on the other hand, are more likely to feel relieved.  Translation: little-at-a-timers are ready for more, but all-at-oncers are left feeling drained.

Which, in behavioral terms, means that that little-at-a-timers have succeeded in rewarding themselves for their efforts (and will, therefore, be more likely to want to repeat the behavior of laundry washing in the future), while the all-at-oncers have punished themselves (and will be more likely to avoid future laundry chores whenever possible).

As a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy, a group of us trainers were tasked with shaping dolphin vocal responses to specific cues.  One challenge was getting the dolphins to offer up specific sounds to match the presence of specific shapes dangled into the water so that, in effect, they did not end up calling an apple an orange.  An additional challenge was that the deadline for achieving behavioral results on this project was tight.

Predictably, some trainers put in long, uninterrupted hours with their dolphins in an attempt to meet the deadline.  Others did not.  Understanding that more frequent, shorter training sessions tend to be more positive and, therefore, more productive, those of us who used the multiple-session approach were able to help our dolphins succeed more quickly and easily.  Less stress for everyone, both dolphin and human.

Stage actors, it turns out, know this game well.  To avoid fatiguing an audience, to keep folks willing to return time and time again, the good actor’s motto is “Always leave ‘em wanting more.”

Which reminds me of a great story, but . . . uh . . . I’m terribly sorry, but that will have to wait for another time.  Right now, I’ve got a load of laundry to check on.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2018