Why It's So Hard to Swap the Toilet Paper Roll

Why It's So Hard to Swap the Toilet Paper Roll
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WILL REID WAS getting tired of asking his teenage children to change the toilet paper roll, so he did what any enlightened father would do: call them out on YouTube. His "instructional video" on toilet roll changing has amassed over one million views since being posted on August 29th.

Of course, laziness isn't endemic to teenagers. Countless others willingly neglect to empty the overflowing trash bin, clean the leaning tower of dirty dishes, or replace the toilet paper roll.

Why do millions of Americans persistently put off easy chores like these? The answer is tied to motivation, or rather, a lack thereof.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, a prolific duo of psychologists based out of Rochester University in New York are the preeminent researchers on the science of motivation. They've narrowed down the basis of human action to two main drivers: intrinsic and extrinsic. We either perform an activity out of interest or enjoyment for the activity itself -- intrinsic -- or we perform an activity to attain an external, separate outcome -- extrinsic. Intrinsic activities are inherently motivating. Extrinsic ones are not.

After outlining these two categories, it's already easy to see why menial chores are often ignored. They're not stimulating in the slightest, so they certainly aren't intrinsically motivated. But as extrinsic activities, they lack enticing outcomes. For example, if you take out the the trash, you're rewarded with an empty bin and a guarantee that you'll have to repeat the chore in a couple of days. Totally lame.

According to Ryan, there also seems to be an inherent "control issue."

"One side is pressuring and demanding—the other (procrastinator) side is either unmotivated or rebelling," he explained in an email.

Ryan and Deci break down motivation as part of a framework called Self-determination Theory. For humans to really want to do something, they say, the task must satisfy three psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. It must be hard enough to make us feel like we're accomplishing something and challenging ourselves: competence. Replacing the toilet paper roll comes up short here. The task must also grant some degree of freedom, like we're not being controlled: autonomy. If doing the dishes isn't a form of bondage, I don't know what is. Without clean pots, pans, dishes, or utensils, the task of feeding oneself can seem insurmountable. We've become slaves to modern modes of cooking and eating. Lastly, the task should at least partially sate our desires to feel that we belong to something grander than ourselves and that we are connected to others: relatedness. In co-op living arrangements, chores fulfill this psychological need. But in typical households, there's a fundamental disconnect. It's often every roommate or family member for themselves.

ENHANCING FEELINGS OF competence, autonomy, and relatedness surrounding a boring task has been shown to significantly boost motivation without altering the task itself. In 1994, Deci completed an experiment in which subjects were sat down in front of a computer and told to press the spacebar whenever a dot of light randomly appeared on the screen. One group simply completed the task with sufficient, but minimal, instruction, while another group performed it after having it presented in a slightly different manner.

"Doing this activity has been shown to be useful," the researchers told the participants. "We have found that those subjects who have done it have learned about their own concentration."

Researchers also acknowledged the subjects' dislike for the task. "I know that doing this is not much fun; in fact many subjects have told me that it's pretty boring."

Lastly, the wording in the task description was changed to make the subjects feel less compelled to take part, a subtle hint that they were free individuals who could walk away at any time.

The participants in the latter group reported feeling happier with the task, as well as more motivated to complete it.

CAN SELF-DETERMINATION Theory be put to use where menial housework is concerned? It probably won't work if you experiment on yourself, but you can certainly try it out on your indolent roommate our your neglectful kids! Tell them that taking out the trash builds character and competence, and that loading the dishwasher is an exercise in problem solving (How can I arrange the dishes most efficiently?). Impress upon them how important it is to you and the rest of the family that everyone pitch in, imbuing a sense of relatedness. And lastly, grant some autonomy in how and when they perform the chores.

If you're the guilty one, Ryan also offered a blunter tidbit of motivation.

"Remember why taking out the trash is worthwhile."

(Image: Shutterstock)

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