top of page

Cognitive Labor at the NIDI

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Many women in the media voice dissatisfaction about the unpaid labor within the household labor and how it is distributed among partners. And it is not so much the physical tasks, which are of concern. As Kate Pollard puts it: “It’s not that our partners don’t help. They feed the kids, change nappies and participate in household chores. But it’s just not the same as the burden most women carry every day, which is that exhausting mental load, the overwhelming responsibility of being in charge of everything in the household.” Scholarly work remarkedfor quite some time that family and household management is an important part of the total unpaid labor (DeVault 1991). Someone has to anticipate which kind of food should be on the table, which ingredients are needed to prepare this food, and where these ingredients come. Scholars refer to this as cognitive labor.

Cognitive labor might be key to understand why women feel a lot more stress than men due to household chores – even in partnerships claiming to divide the housework equally. Typically, it is the woman, who are “the captains of the household” anticipating needs, selecting options, identifying solutions, and monitoring, whether the solution really fits the needs (Daminger 2019; Ciciolla and Luthar 2019). This can refer to very abstract tasks like reflections on their parenting style but also referring to physical tasks like doing the laundry. All this processing of information and juggling with the many big and little things in the mind is very taxing and forms a so-called mental load.

In our research we want to know how couples divide cognitive labor, what makes it so taxing, and how labor market inequalities are associated with this. Despite its clear relevance for our understanding of household processes and gender-specific inequality, our empirical knowledge about the distribution of cognitive labor and its consequences are very limited.

We came to the NIDI to change things for the better. In our work, we used existing data of the GGP to make a first step for analyzing the distribution and consequences of cognitive labor at the population level(Haupt and Gelbgiser 2022). The GGP is an especially interesting data source for such studies, because it contains very detailed questions about the division of unpaid labor in a number of European countries. However, as all other family surveys, it does not capture the cognitive dimension of household labor properly.

The main goal of our visit wasto learn from the GGP team about existingand planned measures for the division of household labor, including cognitive labor.During several rounds of good coffee, cake, and chocolate, we discussed the history of GGP, current data collection efforts and details, and learned about the possibility of submitting new items to the GGP, which we will happily do for the next call for modules.

Our trip was a great pleasure and maybe it will help couples out there someday to live more egalitarian partnerships and reduce their stress.


Ciciolla, Lucia, and Suniya S. Luthar. 2019. “Invisible Household Labor and Ramifications for Adjustment: Mothers as Captains of Households”.Sex Roles 81 (7-8):467–86. doi: 10.1007/s11199-018-1001-x.

Daminger, Allison. 2019. “The cognitive dimension of household labor”.American Sociological Review 84 (4):609–33.

DeVault, Marjorie L. 1991.Feeding the family: The social organization of caring as gendered work. University of Chicago Press.

Haupt, Andreas and Dafna Gelbgiser. 2022. “The Gendered Division of Cognitive Household Labor, Mental Load, and Family-Work Conflict in European Countries”. SocArXiv.


bottom of page