DePaul University College of Communication > Faculty & Staff > Faculty Focus > What Ants and Bees Can Teach Us About Dirty Dishes and Household Harmony

What Ants and Bees Can Teach Us About Dirty Dishes and Household Harmony

On Jan. 29, the College of Communication hosted Dimensions of Communication, an opportunity for faculty members to share their latest research in an engaging manner. The event was “powered by PechaKucha” (say pe-chahk’-cha), a presentation style created in 2003 by a group of Tokyo architectural designers as a concise way to showcase work among peers. During a PechaKucha event, presenters speak on a particular subject while showing 20 images for 20 seconds each.

Five faculty members entertained the audience as they discussed their research subjects and interest areas. Kendra Knight, an assistant professor in our Relational Communication program, presented on her study on division of labor in households, individual's thresholds of tolerance in recognizing and acting (or not) on a need to maintain cleanliness and organization, and how it all correlates to examples we can witness in the natural world.

I’m talking to you today about division of household labor. I also study sex, casual sex to be specific. I’m not talking about that today, not only because I thought it was going to get pretty dicey if I had to come up with 20 pictures relating to casual sex, but also because in my experience this is not quite as relatable or engaging to people as this.

This is much more interesting to most people, and often people have negative stories to share with me. Indeed, division of domestic labor is the third most frequent source of conflict among heterosexual married couples, behind money and childrearing.

How you manage the conflict is more important than the presence of conflict - I’m interested in what leads to the most destructive conflict patterns, like demand/withdraw, in which one partner pursues or criticizes and the other deflects or physically removes him/herself from the situation.

In predicting conflict behavior, I’ve focused on an idea called a response threshold. A response threshold is the point at which an undone household task produces such a negative stimulus so as to make a person feel compelled to attend to the task.

The notion of response threshold is borrowed from biologists who have studied the self-organizing systems of ant and bee colonies. Within each ant colony, for example, there are ants who exhibit low thresholds for food foraging, and those who have higher thresholds.

In terms of human response thresholds, think of something like a trash can. For some of us, a trash can that is almost full produces a negative stimulus, a signal strong enough that we think “I think I’ll take the trash out.” For those types of people, “almost full” is the marker of their response threshold.

or others, however, a full trash can isn’t on our radar. In fact, we may not be bothered by the trash until it is absolutely overflowing. These type of people can be said to have a higher threshold for trash. The real value of this thinking lies in looking at combinations of response thresholds among agents of a system.

It works something like this: A person enters a room, say a kitchen with a dirty dish in the sink. Now, that person may perceive the presence of the dish as a negative stimulus. If it’s bothersome enough, that is if it reaches his/her response threshold, this person is likely to feel compelled to rinse it and put it in the dishwasher.

The next person, perhaps a spouse, who walks into the room, doesn’t get to experience the negative stimulus. The negative stimulus has been removed by the first person. Therefore, there is no need to perform the task.

This set of circumstances creates a positive feedback loop, in that Person A is likely to perform the task again and again. If Person A has a lower threshold, then he/she will nearly always attend to the task before it ever reaches Person B’s threshold level. So A is constantly responding to the negative stimulus, and Person B never even sees it.

This repetition results in what we call task specialization. Over time, the person with the lower threshold gets really good at performing the task. They develop competence in the task. Suddenly, they can unload the dishwasher while they are frying an egg and simultaneously brushing their teeth.

In my research, I hypothesized that people with low thresholds, whose partners have high thresholds, will perform a greater proportion of household labor and will also initiate conflict. Conversely, I predicted that those with higher thresholds will do less housework and avoid conflict.

I actually used photos to measure response thresholds. I showed participants images of successively messier spaces and asked them to indicate the point at which they would be bothered enough to do the task (like take out the trash).

With few exceptions, my predictions were confirmed. People with lower response thresholds took on a greater proportion of household tasks, and were more likely to initiate a demand/withdraw conflict pattern, that really damaging pattern whereby one person criticizes and pursues, and the other deflects or checks out.

To be honest, this study raised many more questions than it answered: Where do thresholds arise from? What about child care tasks? And so, rather than discuss implications of the findings in particular, I will close by saying a bit about implications of this study for communication science in general.

The theory I’m testing, as I mentioned, is derived from self-organizing systems theories. In self-organizing systems, rather simple rules applied to the agents in the system can produce complex but predictable patterns of behavior. Take, for instance, the flight patterns of birds...

We don’t tend to study communication like this. Particularly not statisticians like myself. Most of us talk about communication as a process, but study it as a static phenomenon. We isolate, freeze, or stabilize attributes of communication and make probabilistic claims about their interrelationship.

Well, fortunately, advances in computing have blown open the possibilities for studying communication as a complex system. It’s still incredibly difficult to theorize, but math and modeling that was previously nearly too complicated to compute is now within arms reach.

And so that is what I meant when I titled the talk “What Ants and Bees Can Teach Us About Dirty Dishes and Household Harmony.” It’s partly about this particular theory, and understanding the factors that affect communication around the topic of household labor.

But in a broader sense, it’s about a potential paradigm shift for quantitative researchers in communication, away from probabilistic laws about static attributes, and toward the tedious but invigorating practice of documenting and modeling actual communication patterns as they unfold in real time.