Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Household Work Complexity, Intellectual Functioning, and Self-Esteem in Men and Women

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Household Work Complexity, Intellectual Functioning, and Self-Esteem in Men and Women

Article excerpt

Using data from a U.S. longitudinal investigation of psychological effects of occupational conditions (a project of the National Institute of Mental Health's unit on Socioenvironmental Studies), we examined the relationship between the complexity of household work and 2 psychological variables: intellectual flexibility and self-esteem. Longitudinal reciprocal effects analyses revealed that for men (n = 351) and women (n = 355), more complex household work was associated with increased intellectual flexibility. For women, complex household work was also associated with increased self-confidence and decreased self-deprecation. For men, complex household work was associated with decreased self-confidence. The results are discussed in terms of theories of the cognitive and neurological effects of environmental complexity and of theories of self-esteem.

Key Words: family roles, housework/division of labor, personality, self-esteem.

Over the past few decades, sociological and psychological investigations of men's and women's participation in household work have increased dramatically in number. Research has demonstrated that there are gender differences both in the amount and the type of household labor performed and a variety of theoretical approaches have been proposed to explain these differences (Baxter, 2000; Blair & Lichter, 1991; Greenstein, 1996; Lennon & Rosenfield, 1994). In this article, we take a different but related tack: We focus not on gender differences in the distribution of domestic labor but on the psychological effects of household work (see also Bird, 1999; Dempsey, 2001; Spitze & Loscocco, 2000). In particular, we examine effects of the complexity of household work on intellectual functioning and on two aspects of self-esteem (self-confidence and self-deprecation) in men and women.

Environmental Complexity and Intellectual Functioning

Environmental complexity, including household work complexity, may be considered the degree to which an environment's demands are intellectually challenging. According to Schooler ( 1990), "The more diverse the stimuli, the greater the number of decisions required, the greater the number of considerations to be taken into account in making these decisions, and the more ill defined and apparently contradictory the contingencies, the more complex the environment" (p. 348). Psychological and physiological research has demonstrated that complex environments improve both cognitive and brain functioning in animals. A number of aspects of brain functioning appear to be involved, including neurogenesis and changes in neuron morphology in many areas of the brain (Greenough, Cohen, & Juraska, 1999; Kempermann, Kuhn, & Gage, 1997; Mohammed et al., 2002; Schooler, 1990).

In humans, environmental complexity has been repeatedly demonstrated to have beneficial effects on intellectual and cognitive abilities (Kramer, Bherer, Colcombe, Dong, & Greenough, 2004). A long-term study of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) unit on Socioenvironmental Studies centers on the collection of data from a representative sample of American men in 1964, from a representative subsample of those men as well as their wives in 1974, and finally from the 1994/1995 sample, which includes those 1974 respondents available for interviews in 1994/1995. A central concern of this longitudinal project has been the effects of substantively complex paid work on intellectual functioning (Kohn & Schooler, 1983; Schooler, Mulatu, & Gates, 1999,2004).

Substantively complex work is defined as the degree to which the performance of work requires thought and independent judgment (Kohn & Schooler, 1983, p. 245). As described in Kohn and Schooler (pp. 340 - 343), it is based on the complexity of people's work with data (ranging from comparing to synthesizing on a 7-point scale), with things (ranging from handling to setting up on an 8-point scale), and with people (ranging from serving to mentoring on a 9-point scale). …

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