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Why Some People Spend So Much Time Cleaning

We can look to personality or to history to explain cleaning behaviors.

Key points

  • Some individuals and groups are more tolerant of dirt than others, who tend to spend more time cleaning.
  • Women have historically taken on the bulk of the cleaning as well as childcare.
  • Cleaning is generally not valued that highly, despite its importance to human hygiene.

Some members of a household spend a lot of time cleaning. Others take a more relaxed attitude to washing, cleaning, and tidying in the home. Why do we vary so much in our attitudes toward dust, dirt, and hygiene?


Some individuals and groups are more tolerant of dirt than others. For example, political conservatives are more fearful of dirt and contamination than liberals. This difference was amusingly demonstrated in the finding that more conservatives than liberals have mud rooms in their homes.

As far as personality traits are concerned, people who have a strong aversion to dirt would score low on sensation-seeking. In the old sitcom The Odd Couple, the fastidious neatnik Felix was contrasted with Oscar, who had a more relaxed attitude to cleaning and tidiness. Felix was obsessed with cleaning, implying that if a person finds dirtiness upsetting, they are motivated to devote more effort to cleaning and preventing contamination in the home.

A strange irony in this scenario is that people who hate dirt the most will spend more time cleaning. Unfortunately, a person cannot clean the house without coming into contact with dust and grime. This dynamic may play some part in gender differences in hygienic activities in the home.

The general finding is that women do most of the house cleaning despite having similar work responsibilities outside the home. There remains some division of labor by gender, with men doing more of the home maintenance and yard work, for example, and being considered less competent at laundry.

Why Cleaning Is a Thankless Task

People can be divided between those who have a strong aversion to dust and untidiness and those who give little thought to these domestic matters. The more “hygienic” types inevitably do more of the cleaning because they find an unclean and untidy home unpleasant to the point of being distressing. Doing so gives them a righteous buzz. So, they may be shocked and saddened that their efforts do not meet with the appreciation they would expect.

Cleaning the house is often a thankless task for different reasons. The work frequently goes unnoticed and has to be done repeatedly to maintain the status quo. The selfless house cleaner is much like the Red Queen—running as fast as she can to stay in the same place.

Cleaning, like most other domestic work, is a low-status activity that is performed by people who earn low wages or are otherwise perceived to have low social status. The historical reason for both of these phenomena is related to the fact that women used to spend much of their time at home where the care of the home and the care of children were related activities, both of which were unpaid and associated with lowly social status.

The Connection Between Care of the Home and Care of Children

Thankfully, Oscar and Felix did not have children to interfere with their domestic squabbles. Matters are very different in homes with children. Women still do the lion’s share of caring for children in addition to caring for the home. These functions can be separated in theory, but there is a clear intersection for multiple reasons.

A clean and tidy house is a safer home for children. They are less likely to be injured when dangerous objects such as sharp knives are placed out of reach or electric sockets are fitted with covers to keep out tiny fingers. For that reason, caring for the home is an extension of caring for children.

Nurturing emotions connected to children can be extended to keeping a house clean in the interest of hygiene and health. Cleaning out the refrigerator and getting rid of food that has spoiled is necessary to prevent food poisoning, for instance. So, housework is an essential feature of protecting children in their homes. Cleaning is functionally valuable. Yet, it is not highly valued in the monetary economy compared to other skilled work, although professional cleaners are much better paid than domestic servants of an earlier time.

The Value of Cleaning

Many nonhuman animals engage in hygienic behavior. Worker bees toss out infected larvae, for instance. Birds discard egg shells at a distance from the nest that reduces visibility to predators in addition to keeping the nest clean after chicks hatch. Such activities are valuable because they help the young to prosper.

Yet, human hygienic behavior is not socially valued. We know this because it is poorly paid if it is paid at all. Moreover, doing the cleaning infers low status. Maybe it is time to recognize that we are, after all, a hygienic species, that cleaning makes us human, and that it deserves more respect.

Facebook image: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

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