I Wouldn’t Want to Be These Research Assistants

I’m not sure if it’s an issue that really bothers a lot of guys, or if Dan Ariely is just recycling some of his old letters from readers and his responses. But this is twice in the past few years that Dan has received and responded to the pressure that many men feel when using a public bathroom.

Here’s a letter which appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Dear Dan.
When I’m using the urinal in a public bathroom, it seems to me that I finish much faster when I’m alone than when someone is standing at the urinal next to me. Do you think this is a real phenomenon, or does it just feel that way because I’m more self-conscious when someone else is nearby? —Joe

Here was Dan’s response:

I once conducted an experiment on this subject on the MIT campus, in which a research assistant would enter a public men’s room alongside unsuspecting students. Sometimes he would use a urinal right next to a student, while other times he would leave a free urinal between them. We found that when men have someone using the urinal next to them, it takes them longer to start urinating, but once they start they finish faster, as if they’re trying to get it over with and leave quickly. So you’re not imagining it: Being observed in the bathroom does make the experience more stressful.

This seems quite similar to a letter Dan received back in 2016:

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.

And here were my comments back then on Dan’s response:

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.

So what is it? Are guys so bothered by this problem that a couple of them are writing to Dan Ariely for help?

Or is it more likely that Dan is just busy with the holidays and recycling some old material?

And in all honesty, what is the value of such research?

I can’t imagine that public bathrooms are going to undertake major renovations just because guys are feeling a bit of pressure when they enter such a facility.

I think the alternative may result in the lines that are often found outside women’s restrooms.

I’m willing to give up a little bit of privacy and feel a bit pressured in exchange for being able to take care of business as quickly as I can.

P.S. Maybe I’m the guilty one here, recycling part of an old blog post…

17 thoughts on “I Wouldn’t Want to Be These Research Assistants

  1. This column is why I like Borden’s Blather. Where else would you get a topic such as this? (I’m not being sarcastic.)
    First of all, I agree with the premise that men feel more pressure to pee when we feel like someone is waiting for us. I take longer, in general, now as I’ve aged. I’m pretty sure this is normal, but I’m particularly slow when I know someone behind me is waiting. In fact, there have been times where the peer pressure gets to me, and I leave without leaving a drop. Who knew that sixty-one year old men still give into peer pressure? 😎

    The other thing I find hilarious about your column is learning that students at MIT took the time to study this question. I mean,perhaps it’s an interesting study of human nature, but to conduct a study on this? Sounds like another meaningless Seinfeld episode to me.🤣

    I had never heard the 1964 Olympics incident, but that is funny! What a way to intimidate your opponent!


    1. in this case “peer” may best be pronounced as two syllables:) and the reason there are topics like this is because I start to get desperate and at some point, anything becomes fair game for a blog topic! I always appreciate your comments, Pete.


  2. Nothing wrong with recycling good art. The “Mona Lisa” doesn’t stop being a masterpiece because you already saw it once. I think we have all dug into past works when we struggle for new material. Consider it the second printing of a good book!


  3. I learnt about a lot of weird experiments in psychology which involved bathrooms and other weird things and I just wonder why? Like who wants this information??


  4. lol, a few years ago everyone was sending around a urinal etiquette test where you had to choose which urinal to use under different scenarios… I wonder if that’s where this research originated, or if the results were encoded in that “test” (which was hilarious 🙂 )!


  5. I don’t know. Never experience this situation. But if I was to imagine myself as a man and someone stood beside me when I’m about to release… I think everything will go back up when someone walks in and stand beside me. I actually often wonder how men handle this 😂


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