Urinals, Stage Fright, and Peeing on Ethics

By Brian Gendron, Ph.D.
Published August 29, 2014

Personal space is… personal. And when it gets invaded, we may obviously experience discomfort. On some level this manifests in the form of heart rate and blood pressure acceleration, perspiration, and other physiological change. Thus, to return to a state of homeostasis, we might typically try to move, or adjust our position relative to said invasion.

However, there are contexts in which making a change isn’t easy.  Enter: The bathroom urinals.

In days past, researchers could get away with anything in their experiments, including measuring public bathroom behavior by simply spying. Ah, the classic “Peeping Tom” observational method! Today, ethics review boards appear to be more stringent in their criteria of human research approval standards. Back in 1976, an enlightening investigation took place at the urinals of an unnamed midwestern U.S. university, and was thereafter published in the renowned Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Here, a brief synopsis and critique of the report is provided.

The article opens with some information about personal space as well as the anatomy of the urination process. Bladder muscles contract and force out urine, while urethra muscles simultaneously relax, allowing urine to flow out of the body. Previous research from the 1960s had already determined that fear or anxiety can hinder this complex process. But, these researchers felt it necessary to extend the external validity of such theoretical evidence to the public urinal scene.

For science.

The hypotheses driving this research were fairly straightforward: When males are within closer proximity to each other while urinating, feelings of discomfort arising from personal space invasion will delay the onset of urination (a.k.a. micturition) as well as reduce the length of the urination period.

Good science is detailed science, and so first these researchers decided to conduct a pilot study, simply to ensure that accurate measurements could be taken, and that a covert operation could actually be pulled off. Yes, COVERT. Participants were not informed of their participation in this research! Today, this probably seems outlandish. After all, I’ve had trouble getting paper-and-pencil research surveys approved by ethics boards.

Poised with a stopwatch, the researcher was planted inside the men’s restroom, pretending to “groom” himself as unsuspecting participants entered to do the deed at a urinal.

What if one was to aim high?

Alas, the initial pilot proved successful – 48 peeing males were recorded, and some interesting evidence was acquired. First, as all guys know, you are not to use the urinal immediately adjacent to another guy unless it is totally necessary. Interestingly enough, when another male was present, not one of the 48 participants chose the immediately adjacent urinal. That is a very robust finding and you might assume it was a good enough place to stop. No. The researchers would continue in their noble quest.

Next, a carefully controlled field experiment was conducted using a public bathroom containing three urinals and two toilet stalls. The researchers manipulated the experiment by strategically placing an actor as well as some caution signs in various combinations, so as to create three separate conditions.

WTFreudIt is unclear if the confederate was to stare or not.

Meanwhile, another member of the research team was placed in a stall to take measurement by simply listening for sounds of urination. Unfortunately, this “sit quietly and listen for the splash” method wasn’t working. This bathroom was apparently equipped with some sort of low noise urinals and the researchers needed to improvise…

“We couldn’t hear ‘em peeing, so we just got a mirror and looked.”

Ultimately, and here’s where it gets really weird, the researchers decided to use something akin to a mirror taped to a stick so they can just watch with their own eyes rather than unreliably listen for the sound. They claim they were not able to see any participants’ faces, but are surprisingly mum on other details.

Just as the researchers expected, the 60 men in this part of the study did take longer to start urinating, and did not urinate for as long of a period of time, when the actor was in closer proximity.


Of course, the validity of this data could be criticized, and the ethics are obviously questionable. Yet, it is research like this that demonstrates man’s unwavering pursuit of knowledge. In the end, these scientists aren’t creepy, they’re heroes! And we should all celebrate their courage and enterprise in helping improve our basic understanding of this complex world.


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About the Author

has a Ph.D. in Psychology and enjoys writing in the third person.

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