How Couples Share “Cognitive Labor” and Why it Matters

I met Kara Wilson on a drizzly Saturday. We sat on the couch in her living room while Joel, Kara’s husband, rummaged through kitchen cabinets in search of a snack for their son Luke. I was interrupting the Wilsons’ peaceful weekend afternoon, but I had a good reason: I wanted to understand the “cognitive labor”—thinking, planning, deciding, and problem-solving—that was required to run their household. I was also curious about whether and how Kara and Joel, who both work full-time as consultants, shared that labor. Previous research shows a strong relationship between physical household chores and gender, with consequences for gender equality at both the household and societal levels. Would cognitive labor operate similarly?

Kara (along with Joel and every other parent I interviewed for my recently published research) had plenty to tell me. For instance, Kara recalled kicking off the planning process for Luke’s upcoming birthday party a few weeks prior by googling “one-year-old birthday party planning” and making a list on her phone of things to rent, purchase, or otherwise prepare: balloons, cake, tables and chairs, et cetera. Despite her independent research efforts, however, Kara insisted that planning was a collaborative endeavor. “Even though I have more time to do this type of thing, Joel likes to be involved and give his opinion,” she said, explaining that she ran her preferred options by Joel rather than make unilateral decisions.

At the time, I was puzzled by Kara’s description of the process as “collaborative.” It seemed clear that she was the one doing most of the cognitive work here. But over the course of many interviews, I realized that Kara—and the many men and women who echoed her ideas in some form—was onto something. Cognitive work is gendered, but not uniformly so. And if we want to understand how divisions of cognitive labor impact women, families, and society as a whole, this is a crucial insight.

Cognitive work is gendered, but not uniformly so. And if we want to understand how divisions of cognitive labor impact women, families, and society as a whole, this is a crucial insight.

My research builds on decades of work calling attention to the nonphysical labor required to keep a household afloat: as far back as 1979, for example, sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotion work” and argued that the act of managing one’s own and others’ emotions is a form of labor—one that, like physical household labor, tends to fall disproportionately to women. More recently, legal scholar Elizabeth Emens wrote about “admin,” which she describes as “the office-type work … that it takes to run a life or a household,” and the French cartoonist and blogger Emma posted a viral comic that depicts the work of “project managing” the household. Presumably, this media resonates in part because it renders previously invisible activities and experiences visible.

Despite this visibility, no one can agree on what activities constitute cognitive labor in particular, let alone exactly how men and women differ in the amount or kind of such work they complete. If we want to understand how this dimension of work may be impacting households and communities, and to what extent it is unequally divided, this information is crucial. My research takes a step in that direction, offering a typology of cognitive labor activities and showing how these are gendered among a sample of middle- and upper-middle-class couples.

To get the data, I interviewed 70 college-educated, married parents of young children, representing 35 couples. (Though I sought diversity along other demographic dimensions, the vast majority of respondents were white or Asian and belonged to a different-sex couple, making it difficult to generalize to other racial groups or to same-sex couples.) Each participant kept a written log of all non-work-related decisions they made over a 24-hour period. When we met, I asked them for details about these entries. Participants told me about monitoring the toilet paper supply, figuring out what to make for dinner, selecting a daycare center, deciding which dishwasher to buy, remembering when the car was due for an oil change, reminding their partner that it was their turn for carpool duty … and on, and on, and on.

When I sorted through the hundreds of examples that emerged, I found four primary activities appeared over and over: anticipating a need, identifying options for filling it, deciding among the options, and monitoring the results. Chelsea, for example, noticed her toddler waking up progressively earlier each morning and envisioned her hours of sleep dwindling (anticipation). She reached out to her Facebook network for advice and learned that other parents rely on “okay-to-wake” clocks that turn green when it’s permissible for a child to get out of bed. She sorted through several product sites to familiarize herself with the range of features and price points available (identification) before eventually deciding to buy a higher-end model she could program from her phone (decision-making). Once the package arrived, Chelsea tracked its effects (monitoring): Was her son staying in bed until a reasonable hour? If he was waking up later, but not quite at her target time, should she keep searching for a solution or consider the problem solved?

Cognitive labor is ubiquitous but often invisible.

Among my respondents, this labor was ubiquitous but often invisible. It was hard for a spouse to observe his partner coordinating a playdate in the same way he could see her running the vacuum or folding a load of laundry. Some activities were even invisible to the person doing them. Ensuring a consistent supply of staple foods and paper goods, monitoring the children’s nails and hair to determine when they needed a trim, and stocking up on right-sized winter clothes before the temperature dropped were particularly under-the-radar tasks.

And they were tasks that mostly fell to women: in 26 of the 32 different-sex couples I interviewed, the female partner completed more total cognitive labor than her husband, corroborating other research and anecdotal evidence about gender and mental load. However, when I looked at how gender correlated with the types of cognitive activities men and women conducted, a more nuanced pattern emerged. Women were disproportionately likely to take the lead in anticipating upcoming needs and monitoring outcomes, but identification work was more often split or shared, and decision-making work was overwhelmingly a collaborative activity.

I saw this dynamic emerge among many couples in the study. Jenna and Peter mutually agreed to enroll their daughter in music classes, but Jenna came up with the idea and found a class that would fit the family’s schedule. Desiree and Danny discussed the merits of buying a second stroller before agreeing together to purchase one. But it was Desiree who suggested they needed something more compact and tracked her favorite websites for sales. When it came to picking a daycare, both men and women spoke knowledgeably about the childcare search and explained why they chose the center they did. Only when I dug a little deeper did I learn that in nearly all cases, it was the female partner who initiated the search, identified a shortlist of options, and then invited her husband to tour the finalist centers and share in the ultimate decision.

Women’s tendency to do more household cognitive labor, and more of the most distracting forms, could interfere with their paid work.

One interpretation of this finding is that men enjoy some of the power associated with decision-making—and receive participation “credit” from their wives—without putting in the prep work required to reach the decision stage. That’s significant because the prep work is a particularly onerous form of cognitive labor, in terms of its invisibility and potential to distract from other tasks. Anticipation, for instance, occurs mostly within the mind of the laborer, while decision-making is often carried out via conversation and can be observed by both partners. While some decisions are spontaneous, those with higher stakes are often deliberated over a longer period and can be postponed to a convenient time. Anticipation work is difficult to schedule, meanwhile, and can easily interfere with paid work, leisure, or other activities. Finally, deciding—or at least participating in the decision-making process—is the best way to advocate for your own preferences. Anticipation is comparably less powerful. Putting an item on the household agenda increases the odds it will be addressed, but that’s not the same as determining how it should be addressed.

While my research doesn’t directly assess the long-term individual, household, or societal consequences of cognitive labor imbalances, it does suggest new questions and new considerations for those who seek to design interventions to reduce gender inequality. We know from behavioral science, for example, that humans have limited mental bandwidth. We also know that multitasking is largely a myth: when we do two things at once—think about what to make for dinner while composing a work email, say—we’re really bouncing back and forth between these tasks, and doing both less effectively. This suggests that women’s tendency to do more household cognitive labor, and more of the most distracting forms, could interfere with their paid work. It might also lead them to choose jobs that require fewer hours and offer more flexibility—and, in all likelihood, come with lower pay and less prestige. The cognitive labor imbalance might also impact women’s off-the-clock time, distracting them from leisure activities or, more broadly, fostering a pervasive sense of anxiety: Which needs have they failed to anticipate? What schedule conflicts have they not foreseen? Which ongoing home project might they have lost track of along the way?

And then there’s the question of what to do about all this. Some change will need to occur at the household level. A good starting point would be for couples to include cognitive tasks on their household “balance sheet,” factoring nonphysical work into their assessment of whether each partner is pulling their weight. Meanwhile, institutions that interface with parents should be mindful of the cognitive labor load they impose and seek ways to reduce it. On the low-touch end, timely reminders (that it’s time to schedule an annual check-up or to select a summer camp, perhaps) are a way to outsource anticipation work. Harder to implement but potentially more impactful would be reforms to school and daycare schedules that reduce the labor required to coordinate parents’ and children’s daily and weekly schedules. It’s time for all of us—individuals, families, institutions, society—to take seriously the idea of cognitive labor as labor and to figure out how to ensure it’s divvied up fairly in our homes, workplaces, and communities.