Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Toilet Seat Signaling

In Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen takes up the issue of toilet seat norms.
One individual wrote an economic or “game-theoretic” analysis of whether to leave the toilet seat open or closed. He used complicated mathematical formulas to conclude that economizing hand motions is the key variable. In his account, we should leave the toilet seat “as is” when done. Why bother switching when the seat might be needed in the same position again, and you’ll just have to switch back?
I’d be flattering myself to assume he’s talking about me, since I’m hardly the first to apply math and econ to the toilet seat issue (indeed, my posts were all inspired by others’ analyses). But I have taken the position in question, which Tyler indicts as ignoring the signaling function of the always-down norm:
A more sophisticated approach, based on a longer chat with one’s Inner Economist, would recognize that such matters should be arranged to please one’s wife, and that usually means putting the seat down after use. It is a symbolic recognition of her value.

The economic idea of “signaling” refers to sending a message by choosing a costly action. I signal when I buy my wife flowers on Valentine’s Day; I am not convinced she needs the blossoms in mid-February. I am sorry to say this to all you cheapskates out there, but the cost of signaling is the entire point. A fancy diamond ring goes further than flowers. ... Such gifts show we value the gift receiver, even if diamonds really are a waste of money.
There is something to be said for keeping peace in the household by making small sacrifices. If the women in our lives really think toilet-seat-down is that big a deal, then a wasteful extra hand motion is a small price to pay for domestic tranquility. And if it seems like I think it’s a big deal, that’s only because I get a perverse joy from blogging about the economics of everyday things (in my real life, I generally capitulate to the always-down norm).

That said, I don’t think Tyler’s signaling theory of toilet-seat norms really works. As Tyler notes, the whole point of signaling is to incur a notable cost. The costly signal helps to distinguish two different groups of people by requiring a sacrifice that only one group will make. Thus, higher education is a signal of high productivity because education is costly enough (in terms of effort) that low-productivity people will find it too costly to acquire. If education is too simple – say, because grade inflation makes it possible for everyone to get a degree – then it fails to perform a separating function. Now, apply this to toilet seat positions. In truth, the act of shifting the seat is very low cost, regardless of who does it. (It’s nevertheless true that change-when-necessary is the efficient norm, because it makes the already-low costs lower still.) It’s hard for me to believe that such a simple activity will really distinguish between caring and uncaring partners, because the signal is too easily faked by the uncaring.

In addition, while signaling games are often inefficient (at least if we ignore the value of the signal), some are more inefficient than others. The best signals are ones that, in addition to conveying information, also provide benefits or services that would otherwise be neglected or underprovided. Take the case of charitable giving. For many donors, charitable giving is about signaling to other people: “I am generous, I am caring, I am trustworthy.” But since the giving usually takes the form of a transfer of wealth, there is little deadweight loss, and value is transferred to people who really need it. A major theme of Tyler’s book is that there are many things we can do to improve the efficacy of our charitable giving. Most of the changes he recommends would produce greater external benefits without substantially reducing the strength of our signals.

Why, then, should we defend a clearly wasteful toilet-seat norm as a means of signaling caring to our partners, especially when less inefficient signals – with greater signal strength – are readily available? As I’ve suggested before, couples could bargain their way to the efficient toilet-seat norm via an agreement by men to give more frequent gifts and foot rubs.

Incidentally, we should note that both parties in a relationship need to send signals to each other. Given that both men and women benefit from having their preferred toilet seat norm, why should this particular signal pass from men to women, instead of the reverse? If we’re going to advocate inefficient norms as signals, why shouldn’t women signal caring to the men in their lives by always putting the seat up? (This would be even more inefficient than always-down; but since p[#1] > p[#2], it would still be appreciated by men.) I’m not actually advocating this, but the possibility should give us pause. Why aren’t women willing to send that signal? Might it have something to do with its inefficiency, especially relative to other ways they show us they care?


marshall said...

I still think that this is more an isssue of dominance.

Who is dominating whom?

This question has to be asked and confirmed regularly, which means you can't hold a bargained position very long as the question niggles its way back.

Dominance is not about giving and receiving gifts. Dominance is about one person deciding over another person. This unhappy state of affairs never gets resolved as submission requires more dominance.

If the game begins it is almost impossible not to play.

carrie said...

One interesting part of this issue is that it is only attributable to private bathrooms. Public bathrooms [usually] create a distinction between the sexes which eliminates any needed change. Where I think the AD proponents are coming from begins pre-WWII, when only 28% of women were in the labor force leaving 72% to specialize in home production. The home was a woman’s domain, statistically. The same way no lady would ever walk into her husband’s office and leave his swivel chair re-adjusted, she expects him to leave her seat where he found it. Since home production is a job with no monetary compensation, leaving things where she has put them will [under CWN] reduce her already unpaid labor and allow for a higher morale. Even though the role of homemaker is beginning to even out between sexes, women are going to hedge against flushing AD policy. In my personal opinion, whoever cleans the shit should reap the benefits of seat placement decisions.

marshall said...

carrie - this is an empirical question. Were women as "obnoxious", as you seem to suggest they were, when 72% specialised in home production?

I don't remember - but I don't think they were - as issues of dominance were resolved.

carrie said...

Marshall -

my comment was not a response to yours, I should have made that more clear. I wasn't intending to give women a history of being obnoxious.

Looking back, what I was describing was the origin of the phrase "if mom's not happy, no one's happy". And then connecting that to why women prefer the seat down.

But in response, I absolutely do not believe this is an issue of dominance over one sex, or else there would not be just one sex that is known for disliking a certain seat preference. As women are /known/ for wanting the seat down, men do not get upset if the seat is left down. If the seat is left up, a woman might complain, if the seat is left down it is unlikely a man will say anything.

Geoffrey Roberts said...

If a man and a woman each use the toilet 3 times a day, and the man uses one of his 3 for taking a poo... then 4 out of 6 uses of the toilet each day would require sitting down. So it is more efficient to leave the seat down.

However, there may be cleanliness issues to leaving the seat up... (but only after flushing!!) When you flush you should put both the seat and the cover down as flushing causes water droplets to come out the toilet and these can land anywhere in the bathroom.

These droplets may contain your defecation and can land in yur hair, your eyes, or on your toothbrush. So you would be brushing your teeth with microscopic amounts of your faeces on the brush.

So much for worrying about signalling!!

Glen Whitman said...

"If a man and a woman each use the toilet 3 times a day, and the man uses one of his 3 for taking a poo... then 4 out of 6 uses of the toilet each day would require sitting down. So it is more efficient to leave the seat down."

Nope! Each time a male #1 is followed by a male #1, it's not necessary to put the seat down. If the next person to use the toilet makes the seat adjustment, they will only make it if it's necessary. But if the last person to use the toilet seat makes the seat adjustment, they have to make it every time -- even when it's not necessary.

Your point about flying particles of feces may be well taken. However, dealing with it would require having both seat and lid down for every flush, and that policy just isn't under consideration in most households.

Heather said...

In my house the rule absolutely is LID DOWN when finished using the toilet. I suppose this is the costliest in terms of energy: all parties must lift the lid and then close the lid. But it saves time in bickering, and makes the bathroom appear neater...who wants to look at a big bowl when they walk in? Once you get in the habit of making the potty look a bit mysterious by hiding the big bowl, you'll find the big open bowl even more noticeable and gauche when you visit other people's bathrooms. Although now I suppose that the stress created by noticing other people's open toilets would not otherwise exist if it weren't for my own stupid rule. ack!

Anonymous said...

"Your point about flying particles of feces may be well taken."

And I thought the Flying Spaghetti Monster was strange!

Helen said...

Closing both seat and lid every time works well for all the reasons Heather listed, and it also lessens the probability that other household members will drop their rubber duckies into it.