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Bathroom psychology: A neglected topic?

restroom sign
CC/Flickr/Leo Reynolds
Discussions of bathroom psychology often don’t go beyond “titillating” excretion-related stories of the famous.

In the June issue of The Psychologist, the official publication of the British Psychological Society (BPS), University of Melbourne psychology professor Nick Haslam makes the interesting argument that human excretion may be “one of the most neglected and underappreciated topics in psychology.”

“In 30 years of studying the field I rarely came across any recognition that human beings are creatures who excrete,” Haslam writes. “Much of what we psychologists care about is on the mental side of the mind/body divide, but even when we go corporeal we eliminate elimination. Psychologists have examined the psychobiology of eating, sleeping and sex at great length, and devoted numerous journals and professional associations to them. We have investigated how substances cross from outer to inner but largely ignored traffic in the other direction.”

Discussions of bathroom psychology often don’t go beyond “titillating” excretion-related stories of the famous, Haslam points out. But they are good stories, as he (reluctantly) notes:

  • An embittered former Nazi leader spread rumours that Adolf Hitler had a urinary fetish that put a dampener on his romantic life.
  • For decades Charles Darwin was afflicted with ‘extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence’, each burst preceded by ringing of the ears.
  • As a schoolboy Carl Jung experienced a vision of God, seated on a golden throne, dropping ‘an enormous turd’ on a cathedral.
  • Martin Luther experienced his own spiritual revelations while seated on the privy, was afflicted by constipation and urinary retention and used a rich assortment of scatological expressions to denounce the devil.
  • Constipation also bedevilled Sigmund Freud (the same Sigmund Freud who developed the now largely discredited concept of the anal retentive personality.)

Figures in many mental disorders

I’m not in full agreement with Haslam’s suggestion that some gastrointestinal conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), have psychological causes. Medical history is strewn with claims that certain symptoms were psychologically based only to have it turn out later that the symptoms had very real physical causes (stomach ulcers are a great example).

Still, as Haslam points out, the psychopathology associated with excretion is wide and varied:

Excretion figures in many kinds of mental disorder, from phobias, obsessions, compulsions and delusions through to tics, impulse-control problems and paraphilias. Intense fears surrounding public urination, dubbed ‘paruresis’, are common and often disabling, limiting people’s movements and causing humiliation and pain, as in one sufferer who blacked out and crashed to the tiles from the sheer effort of trying to find relief at a public facility. Although paruresis bears many hallmarks of social anxiety it is unique enough for one writer to propose a new class of ‘sphincteric phobias’. Milder forms of bashful bladder are widespread, a fact established by a study that used a periscope in an adjoining toilet stall to assess men’s urine-streams at a public urinal [!]. Time to begin urinating increased steeply the closer another user stood to the unwitting participant.

A link to social attitudes?

Another fascinating discussion in the article is how excretion — or, rather, how disgusted it makes us feel — may be linked to some of our social attitudes, including prejudices. Writes Haslam:

For example, disgust elicited experimentally by hypnosis or fart spray leads people to express stronger aversion to a range of morally questionable acts.

From excretion’s link to moral judgement it is a small step to its association with social attitudes. There is strong evidence that disgust-proneness is related to prejudice. Yoel Inbar and colleagues (2009), for example, have shown that disgust-sensitive people are especially likely to have anti-gay attitudes. Others have associated disgust-proneness with xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Recently it has even been argued that cross-national differences in closed-mindedness and intolerance are excretion-related: countries with higher levels of parasite stress, associated psychologically with disgust and materially with poor sanitation, are less likely to have robust democracies, individual freedom, equitable distribution of economic resources and gender equality.

Gender and toilet graffiti

Haslam also offers a brief but interesting discussion of the various theories on gender differences in the graffiti found in public toilets (apparently called "latrinalia" by some researchers), and presents a theory on why bathroom graffiti may be in decline: 

Alfred Kinsey was one of the first researchers to enter the field, surveying the walls of more than 300 public toilets in the early 1950s and finding more erotic content in men’s and more romantic content in women’s. Later research has found that men’s graffiti also tend to be more scatological, insulting, prejudiced, and image-based, and less likely to offer advice or otherwise respond to previous remarks.

Theorists have struggled to explain differences such as these. True to his time, Kinsey ascribed them to women’s supposedly greater regard for social conventions and lesser sexual responsiveness. Psychoanalytic writers proposed that graffiti writing was a form of ‘phallic expression’ or that men pursued it out of an unconscious envy of women’s capacity for childbirth. Semioticians argued that men’s toilet graffiti signify and express political dominance, whereas women’s respond to their subordination. Social identity theorists proposed that gender differences in latrinalia reflect the salience of gender in segregated public bathrooms: rather than merely revealing their real, underlying differences, women and men polarise their behaviour in these gender-marked settings so as to exaggerate their femaleness or maleness.

More recently still, toilet graffiti seems to have gone into decline. Arguably in the internet age there is little point writing taboo thoughts on bathroom walls: why scribble for a meagre one-at-a-time audience when you can make equally vulgar anonymous comments on a public discussion board or chatroom?

Why, indeed.

Haslam was apparently so struck by how psychology has, um, averted its eyes from the toilet that he wrote a book about it (“Psychology in the Bathroom”). I haven’t read the book (nor am I likely to do so, as it's priced at $90), but based on the details in this article, it sounds both provocative and fun.

Haslam's article is available in full (and free) on the BPS website.

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