Overclaiming Is Why You Think You're the One Doing All the Work

Consider the following story, which may or may not be autobiographical: A college student named A is getting more and more frustrated with her roommate, named L. Every time A unloads the dishwasher, cleans the bathroom sink, or tidies up the coffee table, she thinks, "I can't believe how messy L is. She doesn't do anything around this place." Little by little, her resentment grows.

But one day, out of the blue, L approaches A for a house meeting. L is distressed over the fact that she, L, is the only one who does housework. She has been sweeping the kitchen and cleaning the shower. The entire time A had been fuming over the fact she was doing more than her fair share, L was fuming over the exact same thing. Both college students were falling prey to the phenomenon of overclaiming: the tendency for people to believe they're doing more than their fair share of the work.

Give a Little Bit

In 1979, researchers Michael Ross and Fiore Sicoly at the University of Waterloo tested this phenomenon with 37 married couples. The subjects were asked to rate how much they contributed to 20 different household activities. Those included constructive things such as making breakfast, caring for children, and doing laundry, but also negative things, like causing arguments and messing up the house.

When adding up each couple's scores, the researchers measured the "egocentric bias" — that is, the tendency to think more about oneself than about others — by whether or not the husband and wife's scores added up to more than 100 percent. They did, in fact: Most subjects overestimated their contributions on 16 of the 20 items. What's more interesting, though, is that this included the negatives, like causing arguments. This shows that overclaiming isn't just about feeling good about yourself; it's more about being unaware of other people overall.

Who's Got Your Back?

So how do you fix it? Behavioral science professor Nicholas Epley, who helped coin the term, told Melissa Dahl for The Science of Us, "Unlike lots of afflictions that you can't do anything about, you can overcome this with just a little bit of attention paid to everyone else."

In one experiment, Epley and his colleagues asked teams of competing researchers to spend a second considering the contributions of others on their team before considering their own. This not only cut down their overestimation of their own contributions but also made them more likely to say they'd work with the other researchers in the future. So next time you're angrily washing a dish left in the sink, stop to think about what the other people in your house have really done to help out.

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For more ways to ensure domestic tranquility, check out "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert" by John Gottman, Ph.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer December 6, 2016

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