There’s a person standing next to you in the bathroom. This person is washing his or her hands and the chances that you are doing, have done, or are about to do the same are quite high. That is, unless the toilet you’re doing your business in is awkwardly close to the sinks.
In the event that you are both washing your hands, I’d like you to, in your mind, remove this extra person from the situation. In this new hypothetical bathroom, where you are the lone user, are washing your hands? Or, have you already left, tainted hands and all? Do you think that your bathroom mate, sans your presence, would have skipped out on washing?
Some communication researchers have done us all a favor by uncovering the oft imagined, yet seldom discussed, loner-in-the-loo phenomenon. According to their study (they covertly observed some 600 college students in the bathroom), people who use the bathroom with one more person present are more likely to wash their hands than they would while using the bathroom alone. Or, for that matter, but a larger group of people.
They also decided that this effect was more pronounced among women, who were more likely to feel the effects of that extra bathroom buddy and even spent more time washing their hands when someone else was around then men.
The reason for this is almost too simple for research, which could be why the article is painfully short, terribly constructed, and discusses only 10 sources. Apparently, it’s standard practice to act “normally” around other people. But, the freak flag flies free when we’re all alone. The research term for this is social impact theory, which basically states that humans act based on the perceived norms of the particular situation regardless of personal preference because the social impact of not adhering to cultural norms in the presence of others could be devastating.
Of course, if testing social impact theory is the research goal, the researcher must put him or herself in some pretty awkward situations. In this paper, for example, researchers either feigned several non-bathroom tasks for the sake of observing bathroom goers or hid in a stall. This hiding, of course, was the primary method employed to make bathroom users feel they were tinkling alone. Following through with this method, it seems that in order to properly test social impact, you must position yourself as the secretive observer, often in some particularly intimate situations.
And here is the argument for an increased importance of research. If researchers could begin convincing the top government brass that they needed to “research” the many daily doings of influential individuals (and by “research” I mean “spy”), we’d have a whole lot fewer problems to talk about. Think of how the Clinton scandal would have played out if a university professor has been slouched behind the ficus tree, pen and paper in hand. We probably wouldn’t need presidential debates anymore because researchers could just tell us everything the candidates have been doing and spare us the senseless chiding that takes place, removing intelligent discourse from the airwaves.
Influential individuals aren’t the only ones who need observing, as this paper clearly shows. The next challenge to researchers is to uncover that people really do pick their noses, throw recyclables in the garbage, and cough without covering their mouths. Once we have done this, we will finally understand one another and the need for societal norms will disappear. By default, we will no longer have a definition for weird.
Everyone will be creepy, but no one will care.
Henningsen, D. D., Henningsen, M. L. M., Braz, L., & Davies, E. (2011). Are we being watched? A test of hand washing in public restrooms as communication behavior. Human Communication 14(1), 31-38.
As a somewhat serious note, I’m slightly concerned that this article has passed for communication scholarship. The researchers follow the path that communication does not necessarily concern word-based, interpersonal, or even purposeful, but goal-based, activity-centric, unintended communication:
In their daily routines, people engage in thousands of communication acts.
Although at times these behaviors may be mindless (Langer, 1989) our communication
behaviors tend to be goal driven (Kellerman, 1992). Indeed, even some behaviors that
may be perceived as mindless or as non-communicative may actually be communication
acts intended to achieve specific goals. We propose that hand washing behavior in public
restrooms represents such an act.
Thus, the researchers’ conclusions – that what is being communicated by washing or not washing our hands is an effort to be perceived as normal – exist as part of any number of readings of culture that could be applied to this situation. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain as to how specific individuals will react to differing situations – this data is not a part of this research. How do we know, for example, that washing/not washing one’s hands is a function of social context rather than an individual’s preconceived notions about hand washing?
Additionally, the sources used to support this article, including the most explanatory about social impact theory, come from social and abnormal psychology research. Those communication resources sited are from the same journal and reflect on theories that are now more than 20 years old.
A better test of social impact theory from a communication perspective might be to research communication among colleagues in a professional setting, especially in times of crisis or when a particularly thorny situation is of concern. See for example the two stories told in this past week’s This American Life. What could be gained, for example, by researchers who follow those individuals who choose to speak/act in ways that are contentious with the known culture of a business?
Then again, I have a sneaking suspicion that people aren’t so much interested in corruption or organizational culture as they are in how other people use the bathroom.