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Flush With Pride? Well, You Shouldn't

New research finds people are highly reluctant to change their water-wasting habit of flushing the toilet after every urination.
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(Photo: I am Kulz/Shutterstock)

(Photo: I am Kulz/Shutterstock)

It’s a habit we can no longer afford, one that produces instant gratification but causes long-term harm. But faced with the choice to stop, deeper impulses almost inevitably override our rational thinking.

Gaining control over this behavior won’t be easy. But given its wide-ranging consequences, there’s really no alternative: We have to stop habitually flushing our toilets.

Given the drought plaguing the Western United States, this simple, cost-free way for people to conserve water would seem like a no-brainer. But a newly published study by three Indiana University researchers, led by Michelle Lute, finds Americans are highly resistant to making this behavioral shift.

The research, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, points to four distinct barriers to reducing flushing following urination: “disgust sensitivity, (the) habitual nature of flushing, norms regarding cleanliness, and lack of pro-environmental motivations.”

Another year or two of drought, and perhaps Californians will be mortified if they use a friend's bathroom and find a pristine toilet bowl.

While that’s a formidable list, Lute and her colleagues argue “targeted interventions” addressing these issues could lead people to think twice before flushing, thus helping us conserve precious water.

The study featured 1,008 Americans recruited online (with a median age of 33). They began by answering a simple question: “How often do you flush after you urinate at home?” They then responded to a series of inquiries about household water use, their willingness to conserve water, and their sensitivity to disgust (which, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt has documented, varies considerably from person to person).

Nearly two-thirds—63 percent—reported they “always” flushed, while 22 percent responded “most of the time,” nine percent “half of the time,” and five percent “sometimes.” Sixty-seven percent of women reported always flushed, compared to 61 percent of men.

Among the reasons prominently cited were “being taught to flush, and the habitual nature of flushing.” Two-thirds of participants said they "would flush first when encountering a guest's urine," while half said they'd do so if the liquid was left by their significant other.

Few realized how much water they were cumulatively wasting with this flush-first mentality. Participants estimated they used 29.2 gallons of water per day indoors; the average figure for Americans is actually 69.3 gallons, and toilets can account for up to a quarter of that amount.

The researchers noted water usage could be reduced through such interventions as checking for leaks and/or dropping a brick in the toilet bowl. Their study suggests either of those approaches would likely face less resistance than a campaign to simply flush less often.

“The most common open-ended response for always flushing was contamination-based (using words like disgusting, unhygienic, unsanitary), followed by avoiding smell,” the researchers report. “Results suggested that disgust sensitivity leads to increased flushing.”

That sensitivity can produce some erroneous assumptions. Although urine is “sterile and rarely infectious," some study participants who always flush “perceived that unsanitary elements of urine can transfer beyond the toilet bowl and contaminate the rest of the bathroom, other areas, and even air in the house,” the researchers write.

Participants found the smell of urine more unpleasant than the sight—an important distinction, since smell can be masked. The researchers suggest “deodorizing pouches that mask the smell of urine in the bathroom” are one promising way to reduce those feelings of disgust.

They also note that habits can change. Lute and her colleagues point out that public campaigns have been successful in getting people to pick up after their dogs. What was once unusual behavior is now the norm, in spite of its inherent ick factor.

On the other hand, they note, we usually deal with Fido’s poop in public, in parks and other green spaces. In contrast, “flushing is very much a private activity that is self-regulated” and presumably less responsive to peer pressure. No one will shame you for flushing, because no one will know.

Still, it’s a reminder that what we consider normal, polite behavior can shift in a relatively short time. Who knows? Another year or two of drought, and perhaps Californians will be mortified if they use a friend's bathroom and find a pristine toilet bowl.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.