At this stage in human history, one would think that we have a pretty good idea about human nature and its effect on the way people think and act. So it continues to amaze me how many perfectly intelligent people routinely discount the concept of self-interest and expect everyone to act selflessly whenever they are asked to do so. When people do not do as asked, instead of finding other solutions that work better and are in harmony with human nature, these rule makers get upset and try to enforce their preferred rules.
Let’s start with an example that occurs between people with a strong family and emotional attachment. Surely, this attachment will be sufficient to overcome any self interest that gets in the way, no? Take the toilet seat issue for instance. Yes, we are dealing with huge issues of vital importance to the human race today. Women are constantly complaining about men who do not put the seat down after they use it. I’m simply trying to reduce the divorce and murder rate one issue at a time.
Just looking at this Barbie and Ken diorama, it seems self evident that some people take this issue way too seriously. One would think that people who live together and share a significant family bond would be most likely to agree to a simple request such as this. However, it is apparent that even close personal ties are not sufficient to get many men to comply. To paraphrase Einstein, asking for the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
Let’s look into this insidious and divisive social problem in more detail to get at the root of the problem. There are three primary reasons for wanting the toilet seat down. To clarify, we are talking about both the seat you sit on when using it and the cover that sits above it. First, it is more sanitary to put the cover down before flushing so that germs don’t go flying into the air with the spray of water. Second, women always need to have the seat down for their own use and don’t want to accidentally sit down in the dark only to find that it isn’t down. Third, it is more aesthetic to have the open bowl covered.
This problem could be solved technically if there was sufficient demand for the development of a bowl that would have to be in the closed position before it could be flushed. I’ve watched enough episodes of Shark Tank, American Inventor, and other invention shows to know that there are a lot of people out there attempting to design and sell new, improved toilet systems. Really. Lots of them. I guess there must be plenty of time to think about toilet design while using the toilet. I’m sorry to say that I’ve even tinkered with my own toilet designs. In fact, a ton of special toilets have been designed to address the problem of containing germs. The Japanese are known for making smart toilets that can even analyze your health. But since no significant consumer demand has materialized for these devices, it is probably not important enough for people to be willing to pay much for it. Sure, we will complain about it, but when it comes time to put up the dough or shut up, we shut up.
So, maybe this issue really isn’t about germs. Maybe it is really just about providing women with the convenience of not having to think about putting the seat down before use. The ability to not have to think does come in handy in the middle of the night. At other times, I would argue that it isn’t exactly a virtue. In this case, why don’t women just get in the habit of spending a fraction of a second to lower the seat themselves? This is the most simple, easy, and foolproof solution. Statistically, if women and men go to the bathroom the same number of times per day, the seat will need to be down more than 50% of the time, but most of the time it will only need to be that way for the women. So, why spend so much effort attempting to transfer the work of lowering the lid from women to men for no other gain? If men are not concerned enough to do it, why spend so much emotional effort complaining about and trying to force them to do something that is not in their self interest?
This leads me to believe it can’t really be about the effort required to lower the seat. Why? Because the seat is also usually covered by a seat cover, so if proper toilet etiquette is followed, then it will always be necessary to lift the cover before sitting down. The act of lifting the cover is hardly different from the motion of lowering the seat. In fact, the act of opposing the force of gravity while lifting up actually takes a greater effort than lowering down. Granted, it is probably too small to actually measure or care about, but if we want to analyze this using proper scientific method, it is an important detail.
Maybe it isn’t about effort and is just about appearance. After all, the rim of the bowl often does get soiled by boys and men who just don’t have good enough aim to hit the center of the target. Even if they do hit the target dead on, the taller the person, the more time the stream has to accelerate, the harder the impact, and more likely that fluid will be ejected out of the toilet. In other words, boys and men make a mess that is best cleaned up (fat chance) or at least covered up. Unfortunately, men don’t seem to be bothered by this as much as women. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to hide the mess, but it is still an exercise in frustration to try and go against human nature (i.e. laziness), especially with toddlers or teenage boys. My suggestion, girls, is to stop complaining and ask your guy to buy a new gadget, which he is far more likely to actually do. If you can make a problem go away using technology, I think it’s a much better bet than relying on human nature alone. Find a toilet that closes and maybe even flushes by itself and pay whatever it costs. As soon as I figure it out, you can find me and my gadget on Shark Tank.
Now let’s move on to an example that involves strangers who have no particular incentive to help each other. I have had the great pleasure, during my working life, to experience frequent workplace reorganizations and associated desk moves. Tempting as it is, I’m not going to go into my pet peeve about reorganizations that make managers feel like they are doing something but actually achieve nothing. No, I’m going to stick to the issue at hand. When I receive one of these not-infrequent desk changes, facilities managers often ask people to clean up their desk before moving so that everyone will have a clean desk when they arrive at their new desk. Sounds reasonable, but if you detect something wrong with this request, you already understand human nature.
I have never, ever, ever, moved into a clean desk that somebody else just vacated. On the contrary, it is always dusty, dirty, and sprinkled with food stains and who knows what else. The keyboard is usually full of crumbs while the mouse and telephone handsets have crud on them. So, of course, I always end up cleaning and disinfecting my new desk thoroughly before use. No problem. It’s what I expect. I don’t expect others to be as clean as me or to do something for me that I’m perfectly capable of doing myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can and will do a better job. If it’s my desk, I have an incentive to clean it. If I’m leaving the desk forever, I have no incentive. This is simple human nature trumping consideration for others.
But back to the original request, which was to clean my OLD desk before moving. If I had actually complied with that request, it would have meant I had to clean two desks every time I moved! For the record, my desk is never that dirty, but I think you get the point. Why would I want to clean two desks so somebody else doesn’t have to clean any, which is what is most likely to happen? Considering the state of most desks I have moved into, I have to assume that many people are actually pigs who don’t even care about their own cleanliness.
Back to the original request again. It runs counter to human nature and there isn’t even any net benefit. The only possible benefit goes to those who break the rules, while the rule followers pays the price of non-compliance. If two desks need to be cleaned by two people, why shouldn’t we both just clean our own instead of somebody else’s? It is absolutely foolish to ever ask one person to do something for you and expect you to do the same for them when both are perfectly capable of doing it for themselves. But this kind of request is heard all the time out of some idealistic desire to order the world the way somebody thinks it should be. Why can’t we just accept that people often are not even willing to do something for themselves, so they certainly can’t be expected to do that same thing for anyone else! The lesson we should all know by now, and which will probably work as long as humanity exists, is to stop relying on people to do things for someone else rather than for themselves.
I don’t want to beat this into your skull with a bat, but let me provide one more example. This time, people are asked to make a sacrifice for others that actually yields a net benefit to the group. So, it isn’t an unreasonable request and really would be nice if people helped each other out. The issue whether or not people should come into work or school sick and thereby expose everyone else to illness. A bad idea, right? So, why does it happen all the time? You know it does. I see sick people at work all the time and my kids go to school with others who should be home in bed, but instead spread the illness to the rest of the class.
According to many studies, the cost to US employers of people coming to work sick, now called “presenteeism,” is between $150-250 billion per year and growing in tough economic times. A 2010 survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found that employees who had no sick days were more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, send an ill child to school or day care and use hospital emergency rooms for care. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that a lack of sick time helped spread 5 million cases of flu-like illness during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.
We all know that it happens and we all ask people to not do this. But it has always happened and will continue to happen because people place the need to get paid over the need to rest at home in bed. Asking people to stay home doesn’t generally work because people do what is best for themselves regardless of the consequences for others. Sure, some people actually feel responsible enough to act in the best interests of all, but overall, it is human nature at work.
Combining all paid time off into one pool doesn’t work because people consider their time off to be for vacation, not for sick days. Overworking people or failing to cross-train others to do their job forces them to come into work to keep up and to protect their job. Tracking “productivity” by the number of days worked instead of by value delivered also deters people from taking time off. Failing to provide any work-at-home options eliminates the chance of staying out of the office when necessary.
So, what are some real solutions to this problem? Many companies offer free flu shots to employees to prevent illness. That’s a good start, but it usually doesn’t apply to families and it doesn’t help if someone still manages to get sick. Other companies offer a generous number of sick days off, offer telecommuting options, cross-train employees, and ensure that employees know that they are not at risk of losing a potential promotion or even their jobs.
What about keeping kids out of school sick? Well, we could rely on wishful thinking that all adults will have good enough employers to be able to take the day off and take care of their kids, or we could recognize that this just doesn’t work and think of something else. Perhaps we could provide a school infirmary where some sick kids could stay if parents cannot take time off. If they are still capable of learning, they could view a video feed from the classroom using a video robot so they don’t have to miss the entire day, or maybe they could do some computer-based exercises or work on other assignments if they don’t feel too bad. This would require some additional expense, but might pay off in the long run in terms of educational effectiveness and lower absenteeism.
Unfortunately, we also have to consider the self-interest of the school system. I’ll bet you didn’t know that schools get evaluated and funded based partly on their attendance record, so it is in the interest of the school to deter your kids from missing too much school. When one of my kids was out sick too much one year, someone from the Board of Education actually told us we should just send him to school sick and let the school nurse determine, if necessary, whether or not he needed to be sent home. I’m not kidding. Obviously, teachers don’t want sick kids in their classroom, but there is some pressure on administrators to get them into school anyway, so why not just do it in a smart way that doesn’t threaten the health of everyone else?
OK, I’ll stop this rant with my final recommendation. We need to stop ignoring human nature and start working around it as best we can. Stop expecting to change people in ways that just do not work. The Marxists tried to create a society based on the ideal of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” We all saw how well that worked, although some seem to have forgotten. People look out for themselves and require incentives to do things that benefit others.
We are what we are, and it doesn’t help much to expect people to follow the Golden Rule just because you asked nicely. People are most likely going to do unto others as others would actually do unto them, but not as they would want them to do. Sorry. It isn’t pretty, but it is reality. As Ronald Reagan said, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” Failing to recognize the power of self interest embedded in our human nature results in poorly-designed laws that benefit law breakers and social rules that benefit rule breakers. Does it really have to be this way?
For further research and discussion, go to the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette (yes, it really exists!).