In the “golden” age of psychology, informed consent — or just general regard for human rights — wasn’t such a popular idea, and secretly videotaping subjects without them knowing it was one of the lesser shocking ways to gather data. And while a bulk of mad-psychologist experiments occurred during the era of John B. Watson, a few were conducted as late as the ’70s, despite ethical examinations of behavior having already become the norm.
One such experiment isn’t nearly as disturbing as “Little Albert,” but fairly unnerving nonetheless, especially when paralleled with today’s concerns over privacy and surveillance. In 1976, three researchers, Middlemist, Knowles, and Matter, sought to answer one of psychology’s most pressing questions: can men pee properly when someone’s standing next to them inside a restroom?
To find out, the psychologists, hijacking a “three-urinal lavatory” at an unnamed U.S. university, observed 60 urinal users and subjected them randomly to three different conditions: in one setting, a confederate stood exactly next to a user while he did his business (an out-of-order sign justified the confederate’s choice of urinal); in another setting, a confederate stood one urinal away from the user; and in the last setting, no confederate joined the unsuspecting male as he emptied his bladder.
To measure the quality of the participant’s peeing experience, the researchers observed the onset of “micturation,” a fancy word for urination the researchers insisted on using, and the duration of the peeing process. The assumption was that “social stressors inhibit relaxation of the external urethral sphincter, which would delay the onset of micturation, and that they increase intravesical pressure, which would shorten the duration of micturation once begun.”
Prior attempts to assess these variables by ear were not enough for the psychologists, so they decided to station a camera inside a stall close enough to study the urinals. The surveillance setup was operated by one presumably less-than-enthused grad student.
One thing that hasn’t been mentioned about this neat operation: none of the urinal users knew they were being studied — and filmed.
The experiment pretty much confirmed what the psychologists exactly thought: “close interpersonal distances increased the delay of onset and decreased the persistence of micturation.” Or, someone peeing next to you at a lavatory made peeing shorter and more difficult.
Undisturbed urinators’ average onset of urination was 4.8 seconds. That number significantly increased when a confederate was one urinal away from the unsuspecting male, at 6.2 seconds. Unsurprisingly, users who peed right next to a confederate spent an average of 8.4 seconds before the commencement of flow.
The psychologists published the results in the Journal of Social and Personality Psychology, and while the results are fascinating, the methodology has been widely criticized, and has since gone to become a textbook example of psychological-experiment no-no’s. It was met with a scathing review a year after publication by Gerald P. Koocher, who in 2006 would become president of the American Psychological Association.
“Although the subjects were never informed that they had participated in an experiment, the experimenters also seemed oblivious to the potential harm to unsuspecting or unstable individuals who might accidentally discover that they were being observed during the course of the ‘micturation,’ or shortly thereafter. At the very least, the design seems laughable and trivial. On the other hand, there appear to be serious ethical questions and potential hazards that are not fully addressed.”