Stressing Out at the Urinal


I am a big fan of Dan Ariely and his work in the area of behavioral economics. I’ve read two of his books, The Upside of Irrationality and Predictably Irrational, and can highly recommend both.

As one reviewer notes, “Dan Ariely is a genius at understanding human behavior: no economist does a better job of uncovering and explaining the hidden reasons for the weird ways we act.”

Dan is also a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, with a popular “Ask Dan” feature appearing on most Saturdays.

These questions cover a variety of topics, from dating, to workplace behavior, to financial advice, to the downright odd.

Last month, there was a question that I thought fell into the downright odd category:

Dear Dan ,
I went to the bathroom at a new restaurant in town only to find a large, modern-looking stainless-steel urinal, without partitions, which put everyone in plain view of his fellow patrons. I tried to finish my business quickly and get out of there. Am I the only one made uncomfortable by such arrangements? Greg

Here was Dan’s response:

Actually, many men are made uneasy by such bathroom settings, but I suspect that you didn’t finish your business any faster.

In 2005, my students and I carried out an experiment at MIT. Sometimes, we had one of our students stand at the middle urinal in the men’s room, pretending to go and waiting for unsuspecting visitors. Other times, we didn’t have anyone from our team at the urinals. In all cases, we had a student hiding in a nearby stall with a recorder.

That let us pick up two aspects of urination: its onset (from the time a subject situated himself at the urinal to the moment when we first heard liquid sounds) and its duration (until those sounds stopped).

We found that men took longer to get going when they had company nearby, presumably because of social stress. But once they started, they finished faster—again, presumably because of stress and the desire to get out of there. The total amount of time was slightly slower than when men were left alone.

Of course, our participants were undergraduates with splendid bladder control, so we might need to repeat this study with a more mature population.

My first reaction was, ‘Are you serious? You had students hiding in stalls recording the sounds of people urinating?’

I’d like to know more about the purpose of that research study, and if the subjects were later asked to provide consent to be part of the study.

I also assume that the person hiding in the stall was a first year grad student, paying his dues.

I’d also like to know how that research assistant stays hidden. I assume the person was crouched on the toilet so that his feet could not be seen. But was there an “out of order” sign on the stall? If not, what would happen if someone went to use that stall, and when they pushed it open they saw someone crouched on the stall with a recorder?

Talk about awkward…

Anyway, the results don’t surprise me, based on personal experience. I think when people go into a public bathroom, they are hoping for some privacy, like they get at home. If that privacy is somehow invaded, it’s going to affect how that person behaves.

It reminds me of a story in the book “Deep Water” by the great swimmer Don Schollander in which he tells of some psychological warfare he used at the 1964 Olympics.

While waiting for the semifinals of the 100 free, Schollander followed one of his competitors to the men’s room, and stood behind him at the urinal waiting for him to finish, even though there was a free urinal. When the guy was finished, Schollander said he almost ran out of the bathroom. Who knows what effect such an incident had, but Schollander did go on to beat him in the race.

It also reminds me of a funny routine by Sebastian Maniscalco when he talks about going out on a first date, and later on during the evening, while back at the girl’s apartment watching TV, he starts having a negative reaction to something he ate during dinner.

The girl asks if she wants him to pause the show they are watching, but he says no, and in fact suggests that she turn up the volume so he could hear it in the bathroom. He then goes in the bathroom and the first thing he does is to turn on the water for some additional noise. He then starts farting, and grabs some of the woman’s towels to muffle the sound.

He paints a picture of a scene I could see myself in.

As I said, I think everyone likes their privacy while in the bathroom, and if we feel that privacy is being threatened, we may react in strange ways.

Not sure if we needed a psychology experiment to find that out, but it’s nice to know that the results confirmed what most of us already knew.

I guess if you are going to study humans and their behavior, it’s best if you can study them in their natural habitat.

By the way, if you’ve never heard of or seen Sebastian Maniscalco, I’ve written about him before; he is one of my favorite comedians. He even made it on to Jerry Seinfeld’s show, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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