How bodily waste shapes emotions, disorders, gender roles, and moral views

As reported here, the flush toilet is ranked ninth in the history of inventions by the British public, slightly above the combustion engine, according to a 2010 survey. At number 22, toilet paper is at number 62, and diapers are preferable to sliced bread, which comes in at number 70. Do these rankings make a significant contribution to our understanding of human issues, or are they merely another example of British perversity?

If they are, psychology has overlooked it. The psychobiology of eating, sleeping, and sex has been extensively studied by psychologists, who have also dedicated a large number of journals to this subject. The movement of chemicals from the outer to the inner has been studied, but the traffic in the opposite direction has received less attention.

Rumors circulated by an enraged former Nazi leader claimed that Adolf Hitler‘s romantic life was hindered by a urine fetish. Charles Darwin suffered from “extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence” for decades, with ringing in the ears preceding each episode. Carl Jung had a vision as a young student of God dropping “an enormous turd” on a cathedral while sitting on a golden throne. Seated on the privy, Martin Luther received his own spiritual revelations, suffered from constipation and urinary retention, and denounced the devil with a wide range of scatological terminology. In addition, another sufferer of constipation was Sigmund Freud.

Psychologists are more likely to come across excrement through Freud’s theories than through his digestive issues. Psychology students are well aware of the psychoanalytic movement’s founder’s assertion that toddlers find pleasure in holding onto and expelling their feces and that conflicts during this developmental stage may manifest as adult conflicts in an anal character structure. Fewer people are aware that Freud also described a urethral personality type that was characterized by “burning ambition” and hypothesized that repressing the urge to urinate on fire was a crucial step in the evolution of primitive man into a civilized species.

In the same way that people attempt to erase excrement from their memory, they also want to hide their bodily waste and prize the items that allow them to do so—flush toilets are ranked 73 positions above Facebook. Nick Haslam wrote the book Psychology in the Bathroom (Haslam, 2012) because he suspected psychology did the same thing—that is, it avoided looking at the toilet. “Imagine if 10% of human nature had been walled off by an irrational taboo. Wouldn’t you want to peek in and see what was hiding back there?’ Of course you would,” as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in a review

It turns out that there is a significant amount of work on the psychology of excretion; however, it is frequently cryptic and scattered throughout the field. Scholars have examined an astounding array of phenomena related to excrement, such as various psychopathologies, personality traits, sexual aberrations, emotions, prejudices, and linguistic practices.

Mental disorders

To begin, let us consider psychopathology. Excretion plays a role in a variety of mental health conditions, including tics, paraphilias, obsessions, compulsions, and delusions. Strong anxieties about urinating in public, known as “paruresis,” are widespread and frequently limiting, restricting a person’s movements and inflicting humiliation and pain. One sufferer blacked out and even fell to the ground while attempting to find relief at a public restroom.

Despite sharing many characteristics with social anxiety, paruresis is distinct enough for one author to suggest a new category of phobias called “sphincteric phobias.” A study that measured men’s pee streams at a public urinal using a periscope in a nearby restroom stall proved that milder types of bashful bladder are common. The time to begin urinating increased steeply the closer another user stood to the unwitting participant (Middlemist et al., 1976).

Olfactory reference syndrome patients experience a distinct kind of anxiety when they worry that they are giving off an offensive, frequently faecal, stench. These phobias are obsessive-compulsive in nature and can occasionally become delusional. Patients have been known to interpret gifts of perfume or even nearby dogs’ barking as proof of their “alimentary stench.” In one well-known case, farting started to inspire safety rather than terror. According to Jungian analysis, a youngster employed flatulence as a means of constructing a “defensive olfactory container” to shield himself from worries of persecution and disintegration, thus forming a “protective cloud of familiarity” when threatened.

The ability to control one’s bowel and bladder in children is an important developmental step and a source of worry for parents, to the point where “accidents” are sometimes used as an excuse for the maltreatment of children. According to a recent study, adults who were forced to drink five cups of water and were not allowed to urinate were better able to resist unrelated temptations, like making rash financial decisions, than adults who had an empty bladder. Parents frequently seem to view toilet training as a model example for developing self-control, and this conclusion is not entirely without merit (Tuk et al., 2011).

Through history and throughout cultures, there has been great variation in approaches to achieving continence. In the Middle Ages, one cure for ‘pyssying in the bedde’ was eating ground hedgehog, and among the Dahomeans of West Africa, repeat offenders had a live frog attached to their waist to better control their behavior or gain self-control. According to shifting trends in child care, the pendulum has swung between strictness and laxity throughout contemporary Western history. While some psychologists formerly thought that childhood bedwetting, setting fires, and animal abuse were all related to adult criminality, more recent research has disproved this theory.

Coprolalia, which translates to “shit speech,” is a common symptom of Tourette’s disease. Scatological expressions are the most popular, while other kinds of profanities and impolite phrases may be used. The Marquise de Dampierre, a woman with “distinguished manners” who was originally documented by Jean Itard in 1825, would occasionally yell “shit and fucking pig”; another of Gilles de la Tourette’s initial instances was a kid who had a preference for “shitty arsehole.”

Excremental language seems to be preferred in many cultures, but there are exceptions, such as the peculiar Japanese term kusobaba (shit grandma).Given that scatological utterances are “the undisputed leader among the taboo themes” according to cross-cultural studies of swearing, the prevalence of excremental blurting in Tourette’s syndrome is undoubtedly not by coincidence (Ljung, 2011, p. 135). Abuse phrases with anal themes are extremely common, notably in the USA and Germany. The former relationship, according to controversial folklorist Alan Dundes (1984), was part of a larger pattern that also included a purported cultural affinity for flatulent music (such as wind and brass), toilet humor, and faecal foods (such as sausage). His analysis did not spare the USA, also finding anal themes to be rife in American football.

Coprophilia and coprophagia are disgustingly literal, but coprolalia simply refers to excrement metaphorically. Eating excrement is common in a number of illnesses, such as psychosis, dementia, and intellectual disability. It has even been recorded as a spectacular form of malingering in the case of a defendant facing a third conviction under California’s ‘three strikes and you’re out’ law who stockpiled his excrement for several days before eating it in dramatic fashion. This was documented as an impressive example of malingering. Remarkably, young toddlers do not naturally oppose this behavior; according to research, two-year-olds willfully placed fake dog poop made of peanut butter and smelly cheese in their mouths (Rozin et al., 1986).

There is also evidence of fetishistic enjoyment of excrement, although perversions involving touching, sniffing, or peeing on other people or their belongings are more common.

Bowel and bladder complaints

Researchers in the fields of gastroenterology and psychosomatic medicine have proven that a significant psychological component is present in many complaints related to the bowel and bladder. For instance, a relatively prevalent illness called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is characterized by constipation and chronic or recurrent diarrhea, along with discomfort, bloating, and abdominal pain. It co-occurs with a wide range of somatic diseases, such as dyspepsia, asthma, chronic fatigue and pain, dysmenorrhea, and fibromyalgia and has no clear organic origin. Individuals with IBS frequently report histories of maltreatment, somatize their distress, have trouble asserting themselves, and score highly on neuroticism measures (Talley et al., 1998).

Individuals with the illness often experience increased sensitivity to pain and visceral sensitivity; this feature is usually measured by slowly inflating a rectal balloon. According to brain scans performed during this type of distension, people with IBS exhibit abnormally high levels of pain center activation; however, these activations can also be partially attributed to anxiety and depression (Elsenbruch et al., 2010). It follows that the brain’s representation of emotion states influences visceral discomfort, contributing to the top-down mechanism of IBS rather than only the bottom-up.

Not all somatopsychic events related to excretion are related to digestive problems. Bladder issues can also have psychological causes and manifest as conversion symptoms in certain situations. For instance, it is widely known that experiencing physical or sexual abuse is highly linked to urine retention and other voiding disorders; survivors of abuse also exhibit higher rates of incontinence (e.g., Link et al., 2007). In summary, disrupted excretory functions are a common physical manifestation of adversity, stress, and suffering.

The anal character

Excretion has been linked to a wide variety of psychological disorders. It is also indirectly related to a normal personality. The most glaring example is Freud’s idea of the anal character, which is considered a discredited folly by the majority of modern personality psychologists (Haslam, 2011). The so-called “anal triad” of orderliness, obstinacy, and parsimony, according to Freud, are characteristics that group together in people who remember getting pleasure from holding back and emptying their intestines when they were young.

According to his theory, these characteristics—which include tightness with money, a rigid conscience, stubbornness, and a cleaning obsession—represent sublimations or reaction formations against these bowel habits. Afterwards, Ernest Jones and Karl Abraham added embellishments to Freud’s depiction, speculating that anal individuals are perfectionistic, pedantic, preoccupied with detail and classification, easily disgusted, work-obsessed, and joyless (Jones, 1918/1950).

Freud suggested that early bowel habits or toilet training would be linked to anal traits; however, research has not been kind to his theory, even though these features appear to be connected to an aversion to bodily waste. In perhaps the most entertaining study of this type, participants with anal features did poorly on a hand-eye coordination task while their arms were elbow-deep in a foul-smelling, “fecal-like” mixture of flour and used crankcase oil (Rosenwald et al., 1966). Nonetheless, notwithstanding Freud’s error regarding the genesis of the anal character, there is persistent proof that its characteristics do, in fact, constitute a coherent pattern.

Indeed, the anal character lives on as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), whose eight diagnostic features mirror it strikingly. Individuals diagnosed with OCPD exhibit a number of traits, including an obsession with details, rules, and lists, a perfectionistic nature, an excessive dedication to work and productivity, an inflexible and scrupulous moral code, rigidity, stubbornness, reluctance to delegate, thriftiness, and the incapacity to part with worn-out or worthless objects. A number of interconnected characteristics that are mainstays of contemporary personality psychology, such as perfectionism, authoritarianism, disgust-proneness, and conscientiousness, also bear traces of the anal character. The anal character stubbornly endures.

Excretion and morals

Excretion is particularly relevant to social psychology, even if it is evidently related to concerns that clinical, health, and personality psychologists find troubling. Despite being a very personal subject, it also touches on public emotions, moral judgments, and prejudices. Within the affective domain, excretion is most strongly associated with disgust and shame, two hitherto disregarded feelings that are tightly related to our bodies’ inherent unreliability and dirtiness (Nussbaum, 2004) as well as to each other (Giner-Sorolla & Espinosa, 2011).

Disgust indicates that something outside of oneself is contaminating, either symbolically—such as with rotten conduct—or literally—such as with feces and rotten food. Shame, on the other hand, conveys the belief that one is filthy or spoiled. Rules of sacredness and purity are broken, and moral revulsion is the result. The feeling can intensify moral condemnation, even in cases where it has nothing to do with the object of the condemnation. In one experiment, disgust caused by fart spray or hypnosis, for instance, caused participants to show a greater dislike for a variety of morally questionable behaviors (Schnall et al., 2009; Wheatley & Haidt, 2005).

It is a short step from excretion’s connection to moral judgment to its correlation with social views. There is compelling evidence linking prejudice with disgust-proneness. For instance, research by Yoel Inbar and colleagues (2009) has demonstrated that people who are sensitive to disgust are particularly prone to holding anti-gay attitudes. Others have connected xenophobia and ethnocentrism to being disgust-prone. According to Thornhill et al. (2009), there has been a recent argument suggesting that cross-national variations in intolerance and closed-mindedness are caused by excretion. Specifically, nations with higher levels of parasite stress, which are linked to psychological disgust and material poor sanitation, are less likely to have strong democracies, individual freedom, equitable distribution of economic resources, and gender equality.

Gender is a social construct, closely linked to excretion. Compared to men, women are typically more repulsed by bodily waste, more censorious of flatulence, more worried about hiding their sounds and odors when using the restroom, and more inclined to wash their hands afterward. Males are less likely to take offense to scatological language and more likely to use it themselves. Compared to women, toilet graffiti is typically shorter and less conversational, as well as more libidinous, aggressive, and excrement-focused (Green, 2003). It appears that masculinity, femininity, and the societal norms that uphold them are closely related to the bathroom.

The fact that women’s excretion is more hidden, emotionally charged, and suppressed than men’s is a prevalent theme among these disparities. Jonathan Swift’s poem “The lady’s dressing room,” which depicts a suitor breaking into his beloved’s room and seeing signs of her dirty corporeality—such as perspiration-stained clothes, beslimed towels, and encrusted combs—clearly illustrates the incompatibility of femininity and excrement. He retreats in terror as he realizes she is hiding her chamber-pot, lamenting, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” An American student states, less poetically, that “women are supposed to be non-poopers” (Weinberg & Williams, 2005, p. 327). Even with today’s progressive views on gender equality, women are still held to a higher standard of purity than men are for transgressing this ideal.

In a specific study (Goldenberg & Roberts, 2004), a female experimenter who excused herself to use the restroom received a lower evaluation than those who excused themselves to get some paperwork; no such difference was observed for experimenters who were male.

Results like these highlight the depth and interest of a subject that could initially appear to be merely puerile. Excretion, whether puerile or not, is one of the overlooked and undervalued subjects in psychology, which Paul Rozin (2007) calls a “hole” in the discipline. The “hole hole”—a psychology of body orifices that has been mostly abandoned since psychoanalysis’s partial eclipse—was singled out by Rozin for special attention. Even though this field isn’t yet ready for the Journal of Toilet Psychology, it could be time to start filling the gap.

Writing on the wall

Toilet graffiti, which one academic called “latrinalia,” has attracted the interest of numerous researchers and theorists over the years. Many of them have concentrated on gender, examining sex differences in the shape and content of these scribbles by using public restrooms as laboratories. One of the first researchers in the field, Alfred Kinsey, examined the walls of over 300 public restrooms in the early 1950s and discovered that the content in the women’s restroom was more romantic than the erotic in the men’s. Subsequent studies have revealed that men are also more likely to write scatological, offensive, biased, and image-based graffiti. They are also less likely to give advice or otherwise address earlier remarks.

Differences like these have proven difficult for theorists to explain. Kinsey, in keeping with the times, attributed them to women’s alleged lower sexual reactivity and higher respect for social norms. Psychoanalytic writers suggested that men who wrote graffiti did so because they were secretly envious of women’s ability to bear children or because it was a type of “phallic expression.” Men’s bathroom graffiti, according to semioticians, expresses and signifies political supremacy, whereas women’s graffiti reacts to their subjugation. Social identity theorists proposed that gender differences in latrinalia reflect the salience of gender in segregated public bathrooms: men and women polarize their behavior in these gender-marked settings to emphasize their maleness or femaleness rather than merely revealing their real, underlying differences.

Women produced fewer latrinalia than men, according to an early study, but subsequent investigations revealed that they had caught up to or even surpassed men in terms of quantity and explicitness. Even more lately, there appears to be less graffiti in restrooms. It may be argued that there is no purpose in writing taboo ideas on toilet walls in the internet age. 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?