We have many cats in our house. When the conditions of litter boxes become unbearable, I just pour more litter over them. My wife, however, completely replaces them with new, clean and fresh-smelling litter, and all the cats rejoice. I never thought this needed explaining: I am just a lazy, selfish person, perhaps even sexist by action, if not by belief. But apparently, there is something more to it, according to a new study by a pair of philosophers from Cambridge University. We men may simply not perceive domestic chores as needing doing in the same way as women. We can ignore them and let the dirty dishes or clothes pile up, without feeling psychological pressure to do something about them. Women, however, may feel a compulsion to clean up. Cue “affordance”, a lovely theory in psychology that I had never heard of until now, but which I will cite from now on every time my wife complains that I am not helping out with housework. In “Gendered affordance perception and unequal domestic labour”, Tom McClelland and Paulina Sliwa argue that where men see avoidance, women perceive affordance. They wrote in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research: “We propose an important gender disparity in the perception of affordances for domestic tasks such as the dishwasher affording emptying, the floor affording sweeping and a mess affording tidying. “We argue that this contributes not only to the inequitable distribution of domestic labour but to the frequent invisibility of that labour.” “Invisibility”, as in taking someone’s housework for granted; how many times have we men thought the home just magically cleans itself? OK, in Hong Kong, of course, the maid or maids clean up. So I have to say the research is pretty Western-centric. It’s a cultural thing. Most men would be proud not to do any housework in many non-Western societies. But this research seems pretty spot on about the differing psychological attitudes and perceptions of my wife and I towards household chores. Affordance theory says people experience objects and situations as implicitly requiring actions or reactions. You see a chair and a dining table and you automatically put food on the table and sit on the chair, rather than the other way around. Incidentally, a good deal of physical comedy involves subverting people’s affordance expectations. But in an interview, Sliwa, who is now at the University of Vienna, said women may look at a dirty surface and see an implied action – “to be wiped” – whereas men may just observe a crumb-covered worktop. That’s definitely me. We men can ignore and not expend any psychological energy. Women, or at least my wife, are at a double disadvantage. Either she ignores it and continues to feel a mental “tug” – ranging from a slight urge to overwhelming compulsion – or she just gives in and cleans it. “Affordances pull on your attention,” Sliwa said. “Tasks may irritate the perceiver until done, or distract them from other plans. If resisted, it can create a felt tension. This puts women in a Catch-22 situation: either inequality of labour or inequality of cognitive load.” Of course, such affordance perceptions follow gender norms. It’s possible to imagine a society where such affordances are reversed, as in a matriarchy. However, I have to say for people in Hong Kong and elsewhere, all this may be less of an issue. I know many couples who do zero housework because their domestic helpers take care of it. So, instead of affordance theory, we need a Marxist theory of economic exploitation. After reading the paper, though, I feel really bad about my wife. Honey, can we get rid of the cats?