In a final example of a study in which research assistants took their lives into their own hands, one very brave investigator set up shop in the toilet stall of a busy university restroom with a stopwatch and a periscope and used the latter to observe men at the urinals. “This provided a view,” the authors explained in the 1976 paper, “of the user's lower torso and made possible direct visual sightings of the stream of urine.”
If you processed that last sentence, you’re probably asking yourself why anyone would want such a good view of a stranger’s micturating penis. In fact, the researchers were trying to gain a better understanding of paruresis, otherwise known as “shy bladder syndrome” (or “pee-shy,” “bashful bladder” and a variety of other monikers). In extreme cases, someone with a shy bladder cannot urinate in public facilities such as airports, restaurants, or their place of employment.
The idea behind this study was that invasion of personal space underlies paruresis—the closer another person is in proximity, the more trouble the pee-shy individual will have urinating. The restroom was therefore rigged so that, in addition to the observer in the toilet stall, another research assistant (called a “confederate” in social psychological parlance) stationed himself either at the urinal next to the unwitting participant or used the urinal farthest away from the participant. As predicted, when the participants were relieving themselves next to the confederate, their urination delay was significantly greater (8.4 sec) than when they were separated from the confederate by one urinal (6.2 sec) or when the confederate was absent (4.9 sec). The duration of urine flow also supported the hypotheses, with participants urinating, on average, for a briefer period in the close condition (17.4 sec) than in either the far (23.4 sec) or alone condition (24.8 sec).
Again, data aside, there are a number of ethical questions raised in this last study. One of these concerns should have been the wellbeing of the research assistant in the toilet stall. Had a particularly hostile participant noticed the glint of a periscope lens on the floor next to his foot, the research assistant could have found himself laid up in a hospital bed for the next six months. The lengths some scientists will go to for a data point!
A final note. It is unlikely that the studies reported here could be done today. In psychological science terms, they are already ancient and most contemporary research ethics committees would see these projects as too high risk for a variety of reasons (including liability concerns for the investigator’s university employer). Frankly, I’m not sure today’s tighter restrictions are a good thing or a bad thing. For example, although they were certainly dangerous in their own ways, each of the studies mentioned above answered legitimate research questions and provided important insights into human social behavior. The realism they afforded by their naturalistic methods would be difficult – if not impossible – to replicate in a laboratory using more innocuous approaches. Once people know they are in an experiment (particularly, when they know the purpose of the study) they tend to behave artificially.
In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature.