One Among Many

The self in social context

Au pissoir: Nudge me if you can

Psychology is everywhere, including bathrooms.

After getting over my fear of showering (ablutophobia), I now consider urination and how to do it right. The run-of-the-mill toilet is a simple device, easy to handle, and - for the most part - undemanding of electricity (excepting the ones that know when you're done and do the flushing for you). When I was little, water tanks were placed high, and the operative action was to pull on a chain to lift the stopper at the bottom of the tank, which in turn would release a cascade of water. Flushing is water plus gravity. This functional design has all but died out. I found a surviving specimen behind the basilica of Sveta Gora (Holy Mountain) near Gorica, Slovenia.

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water plus gravity
inspired design: water plus gravity
In time, the tank was placed just above the toilet. Apparently, there is still enough gravity for the job. Then, in some places, the tank disappeared in the wall and sensors tell when it's flushing time. With all this simplicity, what's left for the engineers to mess up? Enter the ecologists. The ecologists want you to use as much water as is sufficient to do the job, but not more than necessary. If there were no variation in the volume of urination or defecation, a standard amount of water would do. But humans vary in size and so do the jobs they have to do. It is beyond us to accurately map the amount of water needed onto the need itself. So what we have is a crude dichotomy of "a little water" and "a lot of water."

In the Groningen, NL, boutique hotel, I found no levers to operate the toilet, but two plates on the wall behind. One plate was about 3 by 5 inches and the other was even larger, perhaps 4 by 6 inches. I assumed that pressing the large plate would release more water and would be more wasteful than pressing the small plate. I tested and corroborated this theory, wasting water in the process. So this is how the designers responded to the mapping problem: they mapped the size of the fixture onto the size of the effect (amount of water). This solution is reasonable, but it is not perfect. The large plate was easier to hit than the small plate because it was (a) larger, and (b) the first to come into view (and reach) as I rotated to the right. Like most people I am right-handed and thus more facile with right-bound motion; also, the toilet paper was mounted on the wall to the right. In other words, the designers wanted to nudge me to press the small plate, but the environment they created-in conjunction with my habits of motion-steered me toward the large plate. Good design avoids such conflict.

As an alternative, designers may want to consider making the control that executes the wasteful option smaller, harder to reach, and requiring greater effort. For example, the high-volume flush could be operated by pushing-with effort-a small button located under the low-flow default option.

Men like to pee standing up. That's why the urinal was invented. The urinal also increases the efficiency of (the response to) nature's call for half of humanity, and thereby creates a gender imbalance (note the long lines in front of the ladies' room; but that is not the topic of this post). An unintended side effect of urinals is the mess from imprecise aim. It is facile and pointless to blame the urinators for their carelessness. What would be the consequence of such attribution of responsibility? Classes, tutorials, penalties, prizes? It is better to ask if the design can be improved to reduce human error.

Year ago, according to Kim Vicente ("The Human Factor, 2004), a Dutch designer had the idea of drawing a small fly in the urinal just above the drain. Brilliance! The urinator instinctively aims to hit and drown the fly, thereby unwittingly reducing spray and mess. A win-win solution.

Once the cat (fly) was out of the bag, finding entertaining variations was trivial. In one restroom I saw a small bomb with a lit fuse. Urination became an act of saving the world. As soccer fans, Europeans can enjoy scoring goals while urinating; another win-win situation. One variant features a small ball, which, if hit, turns color. I can only wonder how many playful variations on the theme I did not see. There is hope for the American market. Football's H frame suggests itself, the hockey goal, or perhaps the hoop.

Jong again. I previously acknowledged my intellectual (and emotional) debt to Erica Jong, who noticed the connections between bathrooms and psychology. Let it be noted, though, that her perspective was psychoanalytical, whereas mine is cognitive. No matter: I pulled my old paperback copy of "Fear of Flying" off the shelf and found her meditation on European (and Japanese) toilets. Her verdict on the German design is most harsh. Her analysis of the Italian design is more favorable, and she credits the prolific peninsular production of art to the fact that the Italians do not see their shit before flushing. Not so the Germans. Here is an excerpt (pp. 22-23 in my 1973 Signet copy):

Erica Jong
Young Erica Jong
"The German toilet is unique for its little stage (all the world's a) on which shit falls. This enables you to take a good look, choose among political candidates, and think of things to tell your analyst. [In Italy:] the toilets run swift here and the shit disappears long before you can leap up and turn around to admire it. Hence Italian art. Germans have their own shit to admire. Lacking this, Italians make sculptures and paintings."

And now (6/23/2012) for a post-hoc post from a an Anatolian perspective. What you see here is often referred to as the Italian toilet, but the Italians call it the Turkish toilet. The Turks, as far as I have been able to ass-certain, do not pass the buck to the Arabs or the Persians. The design calls for the user to be a squatter, which makes me worry about the very young, the very old, and those of us who enjoy reading the morning paper while doing the business. This photo, taken somewhere in Turkey, allows (calls for?) collective squatting. Any takers?

Turkish crapper

A different view from Sydney (8/24/12)

Sydney pissoir
This (see pic below) is genius. The portable pissoir (or P-P). Question is: Did he have to drop his knickers?

And one more thing (8/23/12)

Hegel, Marx & Stalin claimed that things will progressively get better. The inner logic of history demands it. They were wrong, and spectacularly so. Popper made a scholarly argument of falsification, and the rest of us know from experience that he was right. I have a Braun shaver that I inherited from my grandfather, and it still works. I use it from time to time when I travel in Europe. The shave is fantastically close. The piece is bulky and heavy, but who cares. I have owned 2 Braun shavers since; they were terrible. They were smaller, more fragile, and the shave was atrocious. Yet, the product descriptions bragged about all kinds of fancy supersonic features. It’s all equine manure. The last one that I bought, also a Braun, died with a whimper after 3 minutes in mid-shave. I sent it back.

The same combination of hyped new features and degenerate performance can be observed au pissoir, which brings us back on topic. In the old days, toilets were designed to let water and gravity do the job (see above). Not so in the brave new world of technological arrogance. In our new building on campus, we have fancy Sloan toilets, which are equipped with a flushing system that seems more like a sucking system (no pun, this). Simple gravity is out. Deep down in the bowl, water shoots with great force from front to back. Whether it’s pushed or pulled, I do not know, but I suspect that a separate power source – perhaps electricity – is necessary to make it so. The rest of the bowl gets little water. The front and the two sides get some, but the back gets none. And therein lies the problem. Human excrement is not of uniform shape. If a tall, cylindrical deposit (“turd”) hits the pit and tilts back, hitting that wall, the fancy Sloan system is unable to cope. Perhaps the engineers figured that this kind of pooping can never occur, but how could they be so ignorant? If the bathroom does not come with a brush as back-up, the unsuspecting customer really finds himself in deep doodoo.

Royal Flush. The Sloan crapper is equipped with a sensor that knows when you have risen from the throne. Then it flushes. You don't have to do anything. That's a convenience. Or is it? Suppose you are one of those who sit, poop, and remain seated while waiting for the after-poop. Depending on the mood of the day and your digestive disposition you may want to flush away installment number 1 of number 2. You have 2 options. You can stand up and pretend you are done and thus trigger the automatic flush. Or you can tap the top of the cylindrical fixture behind your back. Reaching behind your spine requires a certain amount of contortion. As you contort, you realize that the engineers were not mindful of you, your second poop, and the psychology of everyday things.

Again, I must disagree with Hegel and point out that some things were better in the old days. When I was little, I could pull on a chain beside me to make the water flush. Later, I would reach beside my ribs to push down a little lever attached to the tank. That only required a little bending. Now I must contort (or get up); just when these motions are beginning to get harder anyway.

3 urinals
Your Inals (12/2012). Visiting Germany again, I discovered 3 cozy urinals in a restaurant's bathrooms. Presumably, 2 gentlemen can urinate at a 90 degree angle. Geometrically correct, yet psycho-socially questionable.

3 more u's
In another place, I found 3 urinals arranged in more traditional, linear fashion. As an added benefit, to make the urination experience even more pleasing, the designers mounted ashtrays on the wall. If you prefer to hold your cigarette in your left hand and your organ in your right, take the right urinal.

pissoir classique
Back in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in the men's room of the German Cultural Society, I found a communal urinal. Herren line up to put the metabolized Spaten Weizen back into circulation. Alcohol brings people together.

And finally, this is not a design flaw, but a design aw. This window gives a full view of the bathroom from the bedroom. Why? Why ask why?

Prague pissoir
Mixed design. A facebook friend brought this little item to my attention. The designer of this Prague pissoir gentle nudges the urinator to use the right piss sink. The choice is his, right? Right?

cheery Slovenian latrine
cheery Slovenian latrine
And there is this Slovenian solution to the problem of not being able to see the inside of the toilet once you've lowered the lid. But then again, is that really a problem?

Munich pissoir
Once upon a pissoir in Munich. Reaching Munich in a full-bladdered state on my way home in June 2013, I forked over EUR1 to take a leak at the Central Station, thereby adding 2 observations - and hence photos - to the record. First, the toilet flushed once I locked the stall door behind me (nice) and it flushed again when I zippered up (smart cameras). Second, on a screen near the sink, I was invited to rate the cleanliness of the place by touching the emoticon representing my level of satisfaction (good design). The screen noted the time of the last cleaning (impressive). In what may have been a different location (but the same day), I saw a push button that could stop the flow of water if pressed twice. Good design? No. Would the second push stop the flow initiated with the first, or would it take two
pissoir survey
additional rapid pushes? The designers ignored the commandment "Thou shalt not leave ambiguities on the table." For if you do, a lot of experimentation ensues, resulting in greater, not lesser, water consumption.

Vicente, K. (2004). The human factor. New York: Routledge.


Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.


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