Friday, September 14, 2012

The urinal next to yours: an actual academic study

In one of my favorite parts of the movie French Kiss, the fiancee calls Meg Ryan from Paris to confess that he has found a new love: "I've never felt this way before. Like I could do anything. I could rule the world, climb the highest mountain. I could walk into the men's room and pee, even with some big guy standing behind me." "What?" she gasps in disbelief.

Anxiety about urinating with other people around is a long-standing joking discussion, primarily relegated to comic movies and the internet. (The number of videos, articles, posts, etc. online that come up when you search "urinal rules" is incredible. You can look for them yourself.) If there are three urinals, you are expected to use the one farthest away from another person. (Such rules about the maintenance of personal space extend to other spaces as well, including buses, restaurants, computer labs, etc.) General experience and anecdote, however, is not enough for some researchers.

Googling "urinal rules" gets a whole wealth of these images.


From the vast archives of strange and questionable academic studies, I bring you, "Personal Space Invasions in the Lavatory: Suggestive Evidence for Arousal" by R. Dennis Middlemist, Eric S. Knowles, and Charles F. Matter. (Journal of Perosnality and Social Psychology, 1976, Vol. 33, No. 5, 541-546).

The investigators were interested in why we have such a strong desire for personal space. Their hypothesis was that proximity causes arousal, and that arousal is "interpersonally stressful" and produces "discomfort." ("Arousal," in this context, is not referring to sexual arousal, but more general emotional arousal.) However, these investigators were dissatisfied with the means of measuring arousal in the other studies they read. Heart rate? Skin conductance? Palm sweating? Interesting, but not good enough. Not...close enough for these investigators.

So...urinals. Investigators can invade personal space without deviating too much from the norm. There is little chance for escape. And (as the fiancee in the beginning of this post could attest), anxiety or stress makes it difficult to urinate, delaying the beginning of urination and shortening the duration of the event. Perfect, right?

The investigators begin with the hypothesis that, "If personal space invasions produce arousal, then subjects standing closest to others at lavatory urinals would show increases in the delay of onset of micturation [urination] and decreases in the persistence of micturation.

To observe the behaviors around urinals and proximity, the investigators placed an observer at the sink of the bathroom and had him pretend to groom himself. Using his wristwatch, he would record the time between unzipping the fly and the beginning of urination and the time the 'persistence' of the urination (from start of flow to end). He took note of this by the sound of the urine hitting the bowl.

Of the 48 people they noticed at a US university campus,
--none would pick a urinal next to another person (which I'm sure comes as no surprise to anyone)
--23 were separated by one urinal from the next user
--9 were separated by 3 or more urinals

Interestingly enough, though, there was an average delay of 7.9 seconds of those only one urinal away compared to those who chose farther distances. The urination lasted longer as well, with 19.0 seconds with one space on average, 24.4 seconds with two spaces, and 32.0 seconds with three or more spaces.

This was just their pilot data, to try to see if this was a legitimate means of inquiry. Since they did not randomly assign who was at what distance, their data could show a self-selection bias: maybe those who choose to urinate with only one urinal between them and another person were just more anxious in general, which accounts for the delay in micturation.

In the real experiment, the investigators artificially and randomly would select the personal proximity difference by placing a confederate next to the subject or removing a urinal by placing a "don't use" sign on it. This meant that the two people in the bathroom (confederate and subject) would be forced to be approximately 16-18 inches apart. A user of the urinal was considered a subject if there were no other people present during the urination except for the investigator and confederate. To collect the data of time and persistence of micturation, an observer was stationed in a stall. During the pilot studies, however, they found that the observers had difficulties in precisely hearing the action. How they worked around this--well, I'll let them explain: "The observer used a periscopic prism imbedded in a stack of books lying on the floor of the toilet stall. An 11-inch space between the floor and the wall of the toilet stall provided a view, through the periscope, of the user's lower torso and made possible direct visual sighitngs of the stream of urine."

Yes, the investigators chose to spy on the men at the urinal using a periscope hidden in a stack of books. Apparently it was "ok" because they couldn't see the men's faces. (Incidentally, I came across a reference to this article made in a research methods book as an example of dubious ethics. Before you find yourself afraid of all university bathrooms, the ethics board training that all investigators must complete and the board which they must get all of their work passed by explicitly prohibits observational studies in places where participants expect a degree of privacy--such as a public restroom.)

But they got results. Their results showed an average 6.2 second delay in moderate distance conditions to 8.4 seconds when the confederate stood directly next to the person. This is compared to 4.9 seconds in the control sample. The persistence of the micturation (the time they were actually urinating) also varied noticeably, with a control condition of 23.4 seconds compared to 17.4 seconds in the close distance condition. (Unfortunately, I can't do a more in-depth analysis of their statistical techniques, since I don't have that background.)

Their experiment shows, indeed, that how close you are to the person next to you does affect the delay of onset of urination and the time spent urinating.

I really wonder whether this whole experiment was worth it. Yes, some degree of "arousal" is somewhat inevitable with proximity, but is urination time really somehow better than the other methods they dismissed in measuring emotional arousal? Skin conductance is commonly used in biofeedback machines in counseling centers to measure stress for therapeutic reasons. Can urination delay and persistence be that much better? And more importantly, does this conclusion justify the invasion of privacy that this entailed? Subjects were never informed that they were in fact, in a study. Subjects were put through discomfort in what is an incredibly private place. You could not get a modern ethics board to pass this.

What we can actually get from this study, though, is the degree to which personal space and boundaries become all the more salient in restroom settings. Restrooms which have inadequate boundaries lead to a greater degree of muscle tension, resulting in a decreased time of urination and thus a more incomplete emptying of the bladder. This, subsequently, can lead to an increase in health problems, such as urinary tract infections. It helps point to the idea that boundaries are very important in designing restrooms--adequate space needs to be between urinals and walls on stall need to be low enough to create a comfortable visual barrier.

What I think I'm going to take away from this study the most, though, is the mental image of a guy in a toilet stall looking through a hidden periscope, watching streams of urine, and feverishly writing times down.

Why do I bet that this was probably some poor grad student?


Extra bonus quotes:

"Urinals are open and placed side by side so that, under crowded conditions, men stand shoulder to shoulder, coactively engaging in private elimination."

"The restroom contained two banks of five urinals, which were bowl type rectangles jutting out of the wall and containing about 3 inches (8 cm) of standing water, which the user flushed."

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