I’ve blogged about toilet-seat norms twice before. Now there is another contribution to the debate. However, I don’t think it’s especially helpful. Shorn of all the fancy game-theoretic jargon (like “trembling-hand perfect equilibrium”), the new article shows two things: (1) The change-when-necessary rule is more efficient than the always-down rule. But we already knew that. (2) If the woman can costlessly punish the man for leaving the seat up, then she can enforce the inefficient always-down rule anyway. The punishment in question is referred to as “yelling,” though we might imagine other punishments.
This is really a “duh” proposition. Everyone knows that female disapproval is what preserves the always-down rule in some households. The question, from the inception of the debate, has been whether such disapproval is warranted.
Moreover, the assumption (implicit in the article) of costless punishment is not justified. Yelling involves an expenditure of effort and time. Alternative punishments might involve the woman placing an embargo on certain activities that she, too, finds enjoyable.
The article says that always-down necessarily prevails, but that’s no longer true once punishment is costly. The analytical question is whether the woman can make her threat to punish credible. This can be difficult, since the punishment will always have to be imposed after the seat has been left up. Yelling thus imposes a cost on the woman (as well as the man) without making her life any easier at that moment.
In a one-shot game – say, if the woman is only a one-night visitor – imposing the punishment is simply not rational, because she will impose a cost on herself with no future benefit. So for the threat to be credible, the man must believe the woman is irrational (and not just broadly irrational, but irrational on this particular matter). She must be willing to yell even if it won’t do a bit of good.
In a repeated game, as occurs during long-term cohabitation, the threat can be credible even if the woman is rational. This is where the game theory gets more complicated. But put very simply, future interactions mean that yelling can indeed affect future benefits, thereby justifying the cost. But the logic breaks down if the end of the repeated game is in sight – for instance, in the event of an impending break-up or divorce. In such cases, the credibility of female threats will crumble, so we should expect the change-when-necessary rule to emerge. This is an empirically testable proposition. Any takers?
UPDATE: Hello, Economist readers! Maybe-Megan-McArdle disputes the argument for the efficiency of the change-when-necessary rule. A few responses:
First, MMM emphasizes the costliness of checking the lid’s position. In the daytime, the cost of checking is negligible – it happens instantaneously upon seeing the toilet. So if MMM’s case for always-down rests upon night-blindness and midnight surprises, then she should immediately concede that change-when-necessary is the efficient daytime rule.
Second, about those midnight surprises. Honestly, I’m just incredulous that women are blindly backing up to their toilets without at least sticking out a hand to locate the seat! I would suggest that this is an inherently dangerous activity, irrespective of the rule for seat-position. In any case, the whole problem can be obviated at a low fixed cost ($3.65) and near-zero marginal cost (about 2 cents/year) by installing a nightlight. With low enough wattage, night blindness is not an issue. Plus, a nightlight has ancillary benefits. Walking around in pitch darkness carries many dangers worse than the midnight surprise.
Third, about gender equity. MMM notes that seat-checking costs are borne almost entirely by women. This is true (unless men pony up for the nightlight – which I, for one, would happily do). But under the always-down rule, the seat-adjustment cost is borne entirely by men. So if men’s advocacy of change-when-necessary is tainted by self-interest, so is women’s advocacy of always-down.
More importantly, as I emphasized in a prior post, there is no necessary conflict between efficiency and equity here. If change-when-necessary is indeed the more efficient rule, then side-payments in the form of cash or foot-rubs could be used to compensate women for acquiescing to the socially optimal rule.
P.S. My interest in this issue is purely intellectual, since in my lone-bachelor household the operative rule is always-down. This is an ingrained but inefficient habit, a consequence of having internalized oppressive gender-biased norms. It being too late for me, I speak only for the benefit of future generations.