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A Guy Walks Into a Bathroom...

Surprisingly, there are more than a few studies on bathroom psychology. Rick Paulas takes a look at his own.
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(Photo: dahlstroms/Flickr)

(Photo: dahlstroms/Flickr)

The public bathroom is, in my personal estimation, one of the most wonderful places in the world. It's a unique blend of public and private—a space where we perform our most taboo actions in the near vicinity of complete strangers—that makes it, in a word, perfect. In a freak show kind of way.

“Many of our swear words are based on what you do in the bathroom,” says Dr. Nicholas Christenfeld, a professor of psychology at University of California-San Diego. “It's this unspoken thing. We talk about eating, this is just the other end.”

How people react in a public bathroom, then, gives us glimpses into all sorts of wonders. Our animalistic nature, usually hidden under layers of sophistication, is on full display. And so, sometimes, our disguise comes unraveled by this clash. It makes sense, then, that there have been no shortage of studies taking place between flushes.

If you're a man, having someone nearby while you're going number one will negatively affect the "speed and flow" of your urine. Yes: Stage fright is an actual scientifically proven thing.

Last year, BuzzFeed put together a whole slew of survey questions that determined, among other findings, that many people check their fecal discards before flushing, and someone's twice as likely to be a sit-down wiper than a stander-upper. But that only dealt with what occurs when someone is by themselves. For instance, it's been proven that people wash their hands more frequently if others are observing. And if you're a man, having someone nearby while you're going number one will negatively affect the “speed and flow” of your urine. Yes: Stage fright is an actual scientifically proven thing

“Starting to pee requires relaxation and the presence of other people adds tension,” Christenfeld explains. He's delved into bathroom research himself by looking at what toilet stalls are most often chosen in men's restrooms. Spoiler: The middle ones, for whatever weird reason.

(This is among other fascinating findings Christenfeld's published over the years, including answering whether or not dogs actually look like their owners, and whether or not people with names that have “negative” sets of initials such as D.I.E. or P.I.G. live longer than those with “positive” initials like A.C.E. and V.I.P.)

I called him up because I had a unique bathroom experience I wanted to run by him, to try to figure out exactly what was going on with it. It went as follows:

I walked into the men's bathroom at a restaurant/bar, and it was one of those large, single rooms that contained a sink, a urinal, a toilet, and zero dividers. There was probably some kind of blow-dryer and garbage can as well. In other words, it was essentially a one-person bathroom, but with two places to dispose waste, making it, maybe, a two-person bathroom? The door was unlocked when I walked in, and a man was utilizing the urinal off to the side. So, I was left with a strange decision. Do I make a move toward the toilet, lift the lid, and have at it? The previously established occupant left the door unlocked, presumably on purpose, meaning he felt the room could, and should, accommodate two people: the more, the merrier. But at the same time, the toilet was located right next to the sink, which he'd be using in short order—especially since I was there to observe his hand-washing habits—leaving my shameful genitals fully exposed to this stranger. (If you're a man, maybe you've had this one before; whenever I've told female friends about it, I've been met with nothing but confused stares.)

Luckily, the peeing stranger alleviated my need to decide pretty quickly. With a slight turn over his shoulder, he offered an explanation: “Sorry, forgot to lock the door.” I backed out and waited my turn.

So, just what was going on in those few moments? Quite a bit, it turns out.

“There's a word for this, and that's 'affordances,'” Christenfeld says. “They are things that show you how to use them.” As an example, he mentioned a sink that has no faucet to turn, making it incompatible with one's normal understanding of how a sink functions. “You wave your hand and the water turns on, and you can learn that. But there's an argument you shouldn't have to learn that, it should show you how to use it." The above case, then, shifts into the realm of architecture, specifically design flaws.

“If you run to the bathroom and there's a little queue of people waiting outside, and they go in one at a time, that absolutely determines your behavior.”

“What is the norm?” Christenfeld asks. “Are you supposed to lock the door? Are you not supposed to lock the door?”

There's probably some reasonable explanation for the size of the room. Perhaps it's used to hold brooms or other equipment when the store's locked up for the night. Maybe the designer forgot about it needing to be ADA compliant until after all the plumbing and methods of disposal were put in, and so the narrow stall was trashed to allow for wheelchair accessibility. But none of that matters, really. “Rooms should direct without having to think about them,” Christenfeld says.

Usually, it's clear. A tiny bathroom with a single receptacle is an easy decision: Bolt the door. A larger space with multiple urinals (read: an inherent encouragement for more than one person to participate in the same bladder-draining activity) is an easy decision not to. “In fact, most of those don't even have locks, which makes it even more clear,” Christenfeld says. But there are certainly those awkward in-between cases. “As long as there are two possible things you could do, you could find something that falls right in between them,” he says. 

This concept moves beyond simply architecture and design, and into how we interact with one another. You'd tip at a restaurant with bussing service, and you wouldn't tip at a buffet. But what if someone at the buffet is bussing tables? “You can learn the rules, or quickly Google it,” Christenfeld says. But even then, most of these issues have been left untouched by the algorithms, or Emily Post, or Ask Polly, or whoever your favorite advice technician is.

“There are an infinite number of possibilities,” Christenfeld says. 

Many problems, in fact, are unsolvable since they're based entirely on your own specific experience. When you see someone, do you shake their hand or give them a great, big hug? If you're picking up a loved one from the airport, you know what to do. Same if you're meeting someone for the first time. But what about the many people in your life that fall somewhere in between? (Larry David has made a career examining this societal murkiness, but he's not exactly offering solutions for the normal among us.)

Another variable at play: The behavior of others. If you're alone on an empty street, you may not risk jaywalking. But if you see someone else doing it, chances dramatically increase you'll do the same, especially if they look well-off. “If they're well-dressed, that will be more influential on my jaywalking than shabbily dressed people,” Christenfeld says. If you're about to board a plane and there's a line of people waiting to talk to a gate agent, there's a good chance you'll take a spot at the end of the line as well, just because.

The forming-of-the-line takes us full circle to where we started, the place where we finish: the bathroom.

“If you run to the bathroom and there's a little queue of people waiting outside, and they go in one at a time, that absolutely determines your behavior,” Christenfeld says. All it takes to construct a new social norm is two people. That establishes a pattern for others to follow, and they do, and so the pattern becomes an unwritten law. “You'd be a pariah if you just followed the person ahead of you into the bathroom, even if it can fit two people.” 

Which is all to say: Be mindful when you're using the bathroom. While pretty much all of your personal bathroom-related habits developed when you were between three and five years old, some of that surely goes out the window when you perform the private act in a public environment. You could be starting an entirely new trend without even knowing it. Meaning, more succinctly: Stay off your damned phones when you're peeing.