I have a pattern for cleaning. It's usually when I have people coming over or when I don't want to do something I should do. It's not that I have a sink full of dirty dishes at all times or dust balls the size of raccoons in my living room; I just don't feel inspired to clean unless I know someone is going to see it or if I'm procrastinating and need to channel the energy somewhere.
A team of University of Connecticut researchers, led by Martin Lang, had 62 students from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic (male and female, with an average age of just under 24) be the subjects in their experiment.
When the participants arrived for the study, they were fitted with a heart-rate monitor and an accelerometer on each wrist. The students sat at a table with a small metal statue on top of it.
Half the students were informed that they would have to give a five-minute talk about the object to an art expert. In their talk, they needed to answer a list of seven questions that included, "How old do you think the object is?" and, "What art genre does this object belong to?"
When the participants understood what they were supposed to do, they were also told that they only had three minutes to prepare their talk. The researchers chose the activity of public speaking deliberately because they knew many people have a fear (glossophobia) of it. The other half of the participants were asked to study the object and think about the list of questions, but were told that they wouldn't have to do any public speaking.
Both sets of participants were asked to polish the object with a wet cloth until they thought it was cleaned. Then the participants who were supposed to give a talk were told they wouldn't have to make a presentation anymore. Everyone then filled out a questionnaire.
The students who had been preparing to give a talk reported that they felt more anxious, and their heart-rate monitors confirmed that their pulses had quickened. Their accelerometers showed that they did more repetitive and predictable motions when they were cleaning.
"On the whole," Lang says, "anxious people focused on smaller areas of the object and cleaned them more meticulously."
The researchers speculated that in times of stress and anxiety, people tend to turn to repetitive behavior like cleaning because it gives them a sense of control over an otherwise ambiguous situation.
Lang says, "If ritualization is a natural response to anxiety, then we might be able to develop effective techniques to help people deal with chronic and acute stress."
For the next study, I volunteer my house. I'm not lazy — it's in the interest of science. And although I'm sure I'll still procrastinate by cleaning, I'd also like to use housework as a way to channel stress and anxiety. If I do that, my house will always be ready for visitors.