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There’s a Solution to the Toilet Seat Up or Down Debate. Maybe? Sort Of?

It's a debate the happens in all households: should the seat be up or down? Turns out, there's a bunch of research that's tackled this extremely important issue.

Graphs: Science Creative Quarterly

I’ve never really understood the toilet seat up or down debate. The solution, as I see it, is simple: Guys, after lifting the seat to pee, should put the seat back down. It’s more sanitary and it makes everything a bit easier for the women in your life. It’s a sign of respect and placing the seat down is also an act of solidarity. All this aside, putting the toilet seat down also puts it in its proper resting position. Otherwise, the toilet looks like an always-open mouth and I don’t care for that at all. 

Still, this bathroom debate rages on. People go wild over it. I know multiple adults — couples who love their spouses and have kids and jobs and second homes — who continuously cite this as one of the most irritating aspects of their entire relationship. Is it because it’s the small issue that builds and builds until a larger debate erupts? Probably. But it’s also because, most often, the scenario plays out like this: The wife wants it down, the husband says something along the lines of “Yeah, okay. Sometimes I forget. What does it matter?” and a fight starts. Or the accusation of leaving the toilet seat up is leveled by a wife at a time when it definitely shouldn’t be. Still, a larger, more serious argument ensues. It’s not really about the toilet set. But it’s not not about the toilet seat, you know? 

Part of the reason the argument comes up is that the up-or-down debate fits in with the “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” and “Should the toilet paper roll be over or under?” brand of seemingly inconsequential, petty issues that become viral tweets or sitcom cliches that we mindlessly absorb. They lodge themselves in our heads and we think they’re things we should care about because someone told us to care about them. I’m not saying this issue is petty and shouldn’t be cared about. What I am saying is that certain couples care about it so much because they’ve been taught to care about it so much. That’s why a fight about the toilet seat evolves into an argument that ends with “Your mother has always hated me, Sandra!”

So why hasn’t there been a clear cut answer to this pee-splattered domestic debate? Well, as it turns out, there has. In 2002, Jay Pil Choi, a researcher at Michigan State University, decided to put a scientific stamp on this discussion. He studied the issue and published the paper “Up or Down? A Male Economist’s Manifesto on Toilet Seat Etiquette”. Choi’s approach is quite complicated. There are graphs and citations of statistical analyses and a formula that models the scenario. (The paper is 17 pages long. Choi shows his work.) Choi works on the assumption that the same toilet in a home is being used by both males and females during the day because why else would you be having this discussion? He then he looks at the fact that both men and women are equally inconvenienced by an up toilet seat when they have to move their bowels. 

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It’s complicated. But Choi concludes that when the number of women is equal or greater to the number of men, the toilet seat should remain down. Men should only be able to keep the toilet seat up if there are three men and two women in a household and so on and so forth. He does, however, say that the accepted norm of putting the seat down always is inefficient because it doesn’t lessen the amount of toilet seat movements per household. 

Now, Choi hasn’t been the only scientist to attack this quandary. In “’A Game Theoretic Approach to the Toilet Seat Problem,”  Richard Harter uses game theory to attack the up down problem as the conflict that it is (Choi’s model does not do this) Harter looks at the situation as a cooperative 2-player game and basically concludes that both players should come up with an agreed-upon contract to split the number of up-down lifts. His conclusion, however, does line up with Choi in that he found the always-down solution inefficient. He does note, however, that it might be better to leave it down to avoid the most conflict. 

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In yet another paper, “The Social Norm of Leaving the Toilet Seat Down: A Game Theoretic Analysis,” economist Hammad Siddiqi argues that, while both Choi and Harter are correct, they leave out a very important issue: the fact that a woman will most likely yell when she finds the toilet seat up. “If a female finds the toilet seat in a wrong position then she will most probably yell at the male involved. This yelling inflicts a cost on the male. Based on this omission, women may argue that the analysis in [Harter and Choi’s] papers is suspect.” 

So what did Siddiqi propose? In his paper, he and his team “internalize the cost of yelling and model the conflict as a non-cooperative game between two species, males and females.” They also found that “the social norm of leaving the toilet seat down is inefficient.” It then gets very complicated as only game-theory can get. Because despite this, they also found that “that the social norm of always leaving the toilet seat down after use is not only a Nash equilibrium in pure strategies but is also trembling-hand perfect. So, we can complain all we like, but this norm is not likely to go away.”

Whoa. Nash Equilibirums and trembling hand perfects? Siddiqi is not messing around. He’s also not finished. “An important issue regarding social norms is whether they are created to increase welfare,” he writes. “Are they society’s response to market failures? One such norm is tipping for service quality. Azar (2003) has shown that the norm of tipping increases social welfare. In this paper, we show conclusively that the social norm of leaving the toilet seat down after use decreases welfare and by doing that we hope to convince the reader that social norms are not always welfare enhancing. Hence, there is a case for scientifically examining social norms and educating the masses about the fallacy of following social norms blindly.”

Basically, he says, we’re all sheep and should look at accepted social norms with a sharper eye. 

Most recently, in 2010, Martin A. Andresen, a Canadian economist, wrote the paper “Up or Down? An Efficiency Based Argument for Optimal Toilet Seat Placement.” Citing Choi’s, Harter’s, and Siddiqi’s work, Andresen, frames the question in terms of the number of people living in a home and the amount of force exerted lifting the toilet seat and uses mathematical models to figure it out. 

“Through the use of mathematical modeling, the analysis in this paper has shown that the optimal placement of the toilet seat can be calculated based on the number of males relative to the number of females,” he writes. “The general result…is that when the number of females in a household is greater than or equal to the number of males the optimal placement of the toilet seat is down. Therefore, there is no longer any need for males and females to argue over the placement of their toilet seat as long as they are concerned with the efficient expenditure of household energy.” 

Now, there is obviously a cheekiness to all of these papers in that these brilliant minds are using their particular skill sets to give exceptionally complicated answers to a problem that doesn’t require such thought. Honestly, their analyses are all pretty fun.

What these papers ultimately prove is that economists and mathematicians have a better sense of humor than we all believed. While they are reaching scientifically valid conclusions, it seems that, while their methods are valid and work is thorough, they are all playing a silly game of one-upmanship to bring us around and around. Undoubtedly someone will come along in another paper to claim that the preceding work forgot to account for the fact that toilet seats are slippery and they’re not accounting for double-lift expenditure. 

So, through all of this, the fact remains: If you want to show your spouse one of these papers as an I-told-you-so, go for it. They’re fun. But I suggest that men take one for the team and put the seat down.If anything, think about all the time you’ll be saving scientists from having to answer our strange domestic debates.