Sunday, March 25, 2012

Correlation and Causation: the Housework Edition

After yesterday's comic, I was hoping to find a good example of a news story where they equated correlation and causation.  In case you're curious, it took me under 5 minutes.

Headline: Why Being Less of a Control Freak May Make You Happier

To start, let me just mention that correlation implies that two things are moving one goes up, so does the other.  Alternatively, as one goes up, the other goes down, or vice versa.  Either way, their outcomes appear to be tied.

Causation on the other hand, says that one thing is causing another.  What yesterday's post was referring to is the often made mistake that just because two things are correlated, we can infer that one is causing the other.  This is not always true, and believing so may get you drawn as a stick figure.  

Anyway, the article above illustrates that point nicely.  The author set out to find out if being a control freak mom made people unhappy....and low and behold it appears to.  55% of women who said they delegate to a partner or spouse at least once a week reported themselves as "very satisfied" with their life.  For those who did not delegate that often, the number was 43%.  

Now, I'll mostly skip the use of the word "delegate" in this article, though it does bother me.  My husband does plenty around the house, but we mostly just consider that "teamwork" not "delegating".  I don't start the week handing out tasks to him, and he doesn't consider the work he does around the house a favor to me.  It's just what needs to get done.

More importantly however, is the articles conclusion that delegating will make people happier.  While delegating and happiness are perhaps correlated, they are not necessarily causal.  It's possible that the women who don't delegate do so because their spouse is lazy, hostile, or generally not involved....all things which would also make them less happy over all.  It's also possible that women who don't delegate are controlling, martyr's, passive aggressive, etc, and that makes them unhappy too.

I had a great stats professor once who opened every class with this:

"If you get one thing out of this class, let it be this:

When x and y or correlated, you have 3 possibilities:

  1. X is causing Y
  2. Y is causing X
  3. Something else is causing both X and Y "
Lack of delegating could cause unhappiness.
Unhappiness could cause people to stop delegating.
Something else entirely could cause people to not delegate and to be unhappy.


  1. The correlation/causation mixup bothers me a lot, too, because it happens so often! I was trying to explain the fallacy of confusing correlation and causation to my daughter the other day, and now I think I should just point her over here for an explanation. Well done!

    FYI, around our home there's not much "delegation" of house work. Frankly, that word would frost me if my wife used it. Instead, like your husband, I pitch in to do what needs doing...

    1. Thanks! Glad you think it's a useful post...because by golly it is a rampant issue.

      Also glad you take issue with the word "delegate". I resent the implication that all household tasks belong to the woman until proven otherwise, and I resent the implication that the husband is some sort of subordinate to the wife. At least in my workplace, peers "work together" or "split tasks"...supervisors delegate.

    2. Admittedly, we have some delegation going on in our house. That's largely because my DH and I differ greatly on what "clean" means. I've been working on relaxing my definition for 10 years and he's been working on creating one :-)

      It works though. Mostly, we joke about it.

  2. I wouldn't be too hard on "delegate," though I do agree that you have read the implication of the word correctly. I recall going to Camp Calumet in the 1980's, watching all these families set up the site. Every single family, the kids always asked Mom "where does this go?" not Dad. They knew who was in charge of that. Head of the Household...hmm.

    People map out territory, usually but not always along lines that have some traditional male/female role to them. Part of that is physical strength, or who cares about it more. I think it became more rigid as the middle class grew in America - it became a mark of having arrived that Mom could be Sacred Queen of the Hearth and not work outside the home. I'm not sure divisions were that consistently rigid before that (though they weren't like today.) I know the colonial era best - in all regions there was women's work and men's work, but not the same in all colonies and not the same as the 19th-20th C.

    Once the division is established it does feel more like delegation than sharing, and feels something like an imposition, even when it logically isn't.