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The tragedy of the toilets

sacred and profane

We have a problem with our toilets. Or at least with the men’s toilets in my first-year dorm. Problems with people not flushing toilets. Problems with people leaving the sinks dirty. On particularly bad occasions, the bathrooms smell so putrid that I want to gag. What could possibly explain how people who at least seem clean could allow such an important place to get so dirty?

What drew my attention to this question was an article written a few weeks ago called “Masculinity at Duke” by Austin Smith which asks the same question. Smith attributes the problem of dirty bathrooms to insecure men trying to exercise power and “convince themselves of their fertility”. I don’t know enough about the subject to either prove or disprove his argument. However, based on my own experience with public bathrooms, I suspect that another reason for the poor state of the men’s bathroom is something simpler. 

I like to think that I am a good bathroom citizen most of the time. I clean up any messes I make in the toilet, and will flush twice if everything does not go down the drain the first time. But whenever there is something that seems too difficult to deal with, or which does not seem worth the effort, I always console myself by thinking “The janitors can deal with it”. And it is this thought that is at the heart of the dirty bathrooms. 

As Smith pointed out, many of the people who leave public bathrooms a mess are not necessarily lazy or messy people. Many of those people who regularly trash public bathrooms or dorm bathrooms probably have perfectly clean bathrooms at their homes. But that does not mean that they never get their home bathrooms dirty. I know, since there have been many times I have been responsible for some sort of mess at home. Maybe my aim is not as good as it could be. Maybe I am not scrupulous with the shower curtain and some of the water spills out onto the floor. Whenever that happens, I generally clean up the bathroom. 

One difference between a public bathroom and a home bathroom is accountability. Only a few people live in most houses, and they know each other by name. If I leave a mess in my bathroom, my mother would instantly be on my case when she found out about what happened. However, in a toilet which dozens, maybe hundreds of people use in a day, it is often impossible to pinpoint exactly who it was that made the mess, reducing the incentive to clean up after oneself. 

There is also the question of urgency. If a toilet in my house is unusable, I have few other options when nature calls. But if one of my dorm’s bathrooms is unusable, unless it is a true emergency, I can just go and find another bathroom on the next floor. And due mainly to the hard work of the janitors, even the worst mess in the bathroom is only a temporary inconvenience. 

All of this means that there is far less incentive to clean up after oneself in a public bathroom. The end result of these circumstances is a situation where the benefits of an action are concentrated in the individual but the costs are spread to the entire population. Economists call this phenomenon “the tragedy of the commons.” If I trash the bathroom and do not clean up the mess, the benefits of my actions are reaped entirely by me. I save a few seconds of my precious time and do not have to perform the icky work of toilet maintenance. But the costs are borne by the people who go to the bathroom after me and have to deal with the mess I left behind, or the janitors whose jobs become that much more demanding. 

This also explains other infuriating behaviors on campus, like people clogging up sidewalks with discarded scooters. The same analysis applies: the individual rider benefits from not having to waste time carrying the scooter to find an appropriate parking spot, but the people who use the sidewalk afterwards have to deal with the consequences of this action. On a larger scale, the tragedy of the commons also explains environmental problems like overfishing and other types of resource depletion. 

What is the solution to the tragedy of the commons? Are we forever doomed to dirty bathrooms and cluttered sidewalks? Not necessarily. As this video notes, humans are capable of at least controlling our own temptation to follow narrow self-interest by working together. The first step is simply stronger enforcement of existing rules, such as about scooter parking. 

Like with many economic problems, however, the best solution involves incentives. Any policies to address this problem need to be designed to get people to care about their bathrooms even after they are done using them. In the case of the bathrooms, one possible solution is to have some sort of dorm-wide competition which rewards the people whose bathrooms are the cleanest with some sort of treat or party. Silly as this may sound, it has the potential to make people want to think about the way they use their bathrooms, because, according to my experience, people will do quite a lot to get free food. And perhaps, using incentives, it may be possible to get people to think more deeply about the impact they have on the places we share. 

Ishaan Ghosh is a Trinity first-year. His column, sacred and profane, usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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