The Science of Selecting a Urinal

Mar 20 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I was reminded of a story yesterday while I was in the bathroom.

The story came from one of my friends in grad school. She was fascinated by the existence of a hidden order in the universe, one that she had been blind to until college. She was taking a computer programming class in her undergraduate days, and each student had to write a simple computer game as a final project. One of her friends, a male, wrote a game that created a random layout of a men's room, with urinals distributed along the walls, and on some turns, with people standing at a subset. On each turn, the player had to select the single best urinal.

The game was popular in her circle of friends, and was even more popular as a conversation topic. It seems that the vast majority (let's say, 80%) of the male players were able to perform nearly perfectly at this game. While the female players didn't even know that it might be possible to rank urinals on the dimension of social acceptability. And often the male players could all agree on a single best urinal but not really articulate why it was the best. Or maybe they had totally divergent, possibly confabulated, reasons, for picking a winner, but, except in rare circumstances it was the same winner.

And all the males had the desire for the remaining 20% to play by the same rules as them, and reduce social friction in the men's room. [If you have never been in a men's room, it helps to know that talking is taboo, and so any coordination needs to be non-verbal.]

I heard my friend's this story about the computer game 10 year's ago. Although I had never thought about these rules before, I have thought about it many many times since. Pretty much any time I had to choose a urinal, which is often. And I have come to the conclusion that, except in certain degenerate cases, there is always a single best urinal, and choosing it is precognitive.

Indeed, were I an evolutionary psychologist, I would attempt to argue that there is a urinal-selecting module in our brains and genes, likely on the y-chromosome.

I have, sadly, never seen the game in person. It's limited to my friend's anecdote and my fervid imagination. I imagine it looks something like the below. As far as I know, this blog post is the first time the Men's Room Urinal Game has been shared with the internet. (Admittedly, my knowledge is limited, since I refuse to search for "Men's Room Urinal Game" in google). I present 4 of the simpler problems, with some exegesis, but no answers, below. Answers tomorrow.

This is a view of the men's room, from above. The gray squiggles are the urinals. The black shape represents the urinator(s) there when you arrive, if any. The choice of font was dictated by the intense love for comic sans among my likely readership.

Round 1 presents the "Basic 5" problem. If you look at this and say, 'how could you possibly choose?' you have already lost, and demonstrated that you are either unfamiliar with men's rooms, or possibly autistic. There is a clear hierarchy of urinal choices. Although left/right preferences may vary by individual.

Round 2 introduces the issue of the other urinator. It breaks the symmetry. And increases the complexity infinitely. But not in this simple case. There's a clear hierarchy here.

Round 3: No comments, except to say, this takes us from beginner's to intermediate level.

In my friend's telling, there were a large number of layouts, with corners, occasional support pillars, small puddles of urine on the floor, and so on. Because I am considering releasing a home board game of this, I will not present them all here, but I will provide a corner case, for your consideration and discussion.

43 responses so far

  • scicurious says:

    OMG. This is hard. Clearly I've never used a urinal. Or at least not in a socially acceptable manner.

    Is there more explanation on which ones are acceptable and why?

    • neuropolarbear says:

      Here are some of the many criteria:
      (1) You don't want to be next to someone if you don't have to.
      (2) You don't want to be the weird who just goes straight to the corner; you want it to LOOK random
      (3) You don't want to force the next person to violate one of the rules (so you choice depends on your estimate of the encounter rate in this particular restroom, which is not a factor I identified).
      (4) You want to be acutely sensitive to slight deviations in body positions that could signal that you might accidentally touch shoulders... or worse.

  • Dr Becca says:

    As a righty--E,D,B,C

    • DrugMonkey says:

      What do you imagine handed ness has to do with it? (or did you just go straight to the Challenge round? In which case...props)

      • Dr Becca says:

        I don't know, I imagine that the arm you use needs a little extra room, so by picking the right side, you can ensure that that arm won't hit another person? I have no idea, really.

  • neuropolarbear says:

    Good choices. I would do D on round 1 because going to the corner first makes you seem overly type-A. Unless it's closest to the entrance, in which case it might seem like the most efficient option. D looks random (unlike C).

    D is the clear winner on Round 2. Choosing C would be a major violation of protocol.

    On round 3, I would go for A. Logic being, you have to be next to someone, but you can angle your body towards the corner a little bit, making it slightly better than the others.

    On round 4, I would do C for the same reason.

    Now I want some empirical data...

  • odyssey says:

    In round 1 I would do A or E. C would be a distant third choice. With B or D you run the risk of breaking protocol if two people come in after you. And with A or E no matter what you can only be next to one person.
    Round 2 is A or D.
    Round 3 is clearly A.
    Round 4 there is no choice but C.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      I agree it's illogical. But I think that's a risk most men take. Perhaps as the variable (urination time) minus (expected arrival time) increases, the optimal strategy changes. Ironically, I presented a poster on this topic at the most recent ACNP meeting. Although I carefully disguised the material, the math was exactly the same.

      • Drugmonkey says:

        Wait......YOU were that creepy dude hanging around in the men's room pretending to text or something? That's your field blind? An iPhone?

  • neuropolarbear says:

    I added one more, just to illustrate the complexity of influences further.

    • odyssey says:

      Round 5 will depend upon your "reach".

      • DrugMonkey says:

        Hint: "wide stance"

        • Pascale says:

          OOOH, that can get you in big trouble, at least in the stalls!

          • neuropolarbear says:

            I drafted a blog post about the inverse correlation between "reach" and the logarithm of a man's age. But then I deleted it because I worried my brief tenure at scientopia would degenerate into a discussion of urine. And I want to use it to promulgate my theories about the moon landings being a hoax instead.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    First three rounds are flawed, most men's rooms would have a corner there...this makes it the special case of stadium (beer, game time rules) or airport (luggage rules).

    Your comment about not using the corner is wrong.

  • Bashir says:

    The real rule is no talking. With the exception being at sporting events or any other event that involves drinking. That can be hilarious.

    • DrugMonkey says:

      And scientific meetings. Great time to introduce yourself to that luminary. They all have prostate issues so they stand there for like ten minutes anyway...

      • neuropolarbear says:

        I always make a point of identifying the least populous restrooms at all meetings.

  • tideliar says:

    Excellent! This is something I've talked about before. I too was entirely uncognizant of the Rules of the Restroom until I saw an episode of the British TV crime drama - Cracker with Robbie Coltrain playing a criminal psychologist. IIRC He figured out a chap had been murdered in the restroom by the position of the body, and that the assailant was likely a female. Since then I've been enlightened to my own instincts

    ...especially when someone BREAKS THE RULES IN THE RESTROOM!!!

    (see also, elevator standing positions)

    • neuropolarbear says:

      I believe that episode was based on an earlier, kind of obscure Conan Doyle story, called The Men's Room of the Baskervilles.

  • DJMH says:

    Why in God's name are there pools of urine on the floor of the restroom? I think that is a good indication that some subset of guys not only can't play this game right by choosing the right urinal, apparently some of them also get too flustered to choose ANY urinal.

    /she asks after just yesterday failing to keep her two-year-old sitting on the potty rather than levitating himself in an effort to see what was going on...and peeing all over the floor.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      The restroom in question is the John Fenwick Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike, and there is indeed a puddle of urine in front of the fifth urinal there. I just double checked and can confirm it. As to why it is there, I am not certain but I like your "too flustered' theory.

  • OmegaMom says:

    I seem to recall that there was actually a study done on urinal selection in men's rooms...psychology, natch.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      Did they use hidden cameras? Did they obtain subjects' consent? Before or after? Did they hide in a field blind?

      • Drugmonkey says:

        This will be the next Republican CongressCritter's excuse for being caught peeping in a restroom or some such nasty business. "I was doing a urinal choice study from a field blind!"

  • Nico says:

    Of course the complexity is greatly increased in Scottish pubs, where not only urinals are long troughs to maximise the urinator per foot ratio, but you have to decide whether to stand next to the kilt wearers or not.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      In the context of this problem, I liken the difference between urinals and troughs to the difference between discrete and continuous statistics in math. Or as they might say in a Scottish pub, maths.

  • Madhu says:

    This is a very interesting paper which addresses a very important, common behavior in the human male, but one that has not received much rigorous scientific attention, namely: urinal habitat selection. This reviewer therefore considers this paper a valuable addition to the literature on human psychology (however it may have evolved).

    This reviewer must note, however, that the author has overlooked one key reference by an authority who had investigated this phenomenon in some detail years ago - albeit with slightly less detailed diagrams - and attempted to analyze this business of urinal habitat selection by men. That reference is a chapter in the classic "Complete Guide to Guys" by Dave Barry (Barry, D. 2000). I therefore refer the author of the current manuscript to that previous insightful paper, now available online here:

    A google search may also reveal other expositions following Barry's seminal publication, including some video analyses. The author of the current manuscript is therefore encouraged to dig deeper into the literature (which, even if not strictly peer-reviewed, is quite likely at least pee-er reviewed!), which might lead to an improvement of the model generating deeper insights into this behavior.

  • Heavy says:

    I too have thought a lot about this game ever since I first played it many years ago. There are many places to find the game, here's one:

    I could have sworn there was an option to go into a stall in the original. At any rate, I scored perfectly...

  • NkThrasher says:

    Very interesting.

    My priorities:

    1) A = E > C > B = D
    2) A = D > B = C
    3) A > B = C
    4) C > B > A
    5) A > B > Puddle

    Rules for selection:

    - Invalid, no urinal present on a given adjacent side
    - Unoccupied, nobody currently present
    - Occupied, somebody currently present

    1) One invalid adjacent, one unoccupied adjacent
    2) Two unoccupied adjacents
    3) One invalid adjacent, one occupied adjacent
    4) One occupied adjacent, one unoccupied adjacent
    5) If a space is going to have likely contact between you and another it is preferential to have that contact be on the side, not to your back (Thus on example 4 B > A)

    The complication is the puddle. I would think that a puddle could either be treated as any type of space. But there is some granularity involved in the decision on whether it is a barrier entirely (invalid), a likely barrier (occupied) or not a barrier at all (unoccupied).

    This obviously doesn't weight decisions based on size, disposition, current activity, and known duration at the stall for any existing occupied space. Which are all important in a live scenario.

  • Doug says:

    This issue was already examined by Elliott Oring in 1975 - see "From Uretics to Uremics: A Contribution toward the Ethnography of Peeing" in California Anthropologist. The study was republished in 1979 in Culture, Curers, and Contagion: Readings for Medical Social Science.

  • gerty-z says:

    totally late here, but I answered before I read the comments: DAACA. Now I'm gonna go back and see if I would be an awkward urinal chooser.

  • The whole "game" of determining where to stand given multiple urinary targets is genetically programmed into men and simply acts as a distraction to ward off the worst possible outcome of a lavatorial visit: bashful bladder syndrome. Apparently, this occurs most commonly when the bladder is full to capacity, a urinal is chosen in haste, when shoulders clash or worse still when someone I hear.

  • Declan says:

    There was actually a flash cartoon game that got emailed around (circa Joe Cartoon, Lobster Magnet, Jake's Booty Call) - it was reasonably well drawn and importantly included things like doors, windows, the position of the cubicles, the sinks etc. .. all of these provide vital signals. Your first example has more than one correct answer which makes it unsuitable as an entry level exercise.

    Last year I made a terrible error in toiletiquette when I found myself on the central urinal of three. I was mid-flow when two other people came in and were forced either side of me. Somewhere a cistern was crying.

  • 'If you pick B in the first one, you basically get A for free.' -Reasoning from CellularSpouse

  • [...] The Science of Selecting a Urinal Mars Attacked: Planetary Scientists Vent Frustrations over Proposed Budget Cuts Federal Infection Disclosure Mandates Urged I Beg to Differ: Diabetes in the US The climate change hoax [...]

  • Sideshow Bill says:

    It's easy, follow the rules for electron population for energy levels in the D blockan atom. No one wants to be paired up, that is next to anyone else. It was termed a High Pee state.

  • It's a more refreshing game than a shooter and highly exciting.

  • hehhh i dont know if there talking about paid user/canceled subscribers combine,, or just paid user if they sold 4 gazillion copies of expansion thats population group that dont have it and thats large amount of left overs... man there going to experience a big issue on current 3rd expansion if they dont close the gap faster... heh i like lotro a lot more than though man the lotr conquest game rocks just wish turbine came up with fighting like it.. but it perfect for an rpg as it's

  • And I thought I was the only one thinking about this all the time ūüėÄ

    Blasphemous Aesthete