I don’t make a habit of taking photographs in public restrooms, but…

(This is, genuinely, about behavioural direction)

Let me paint you a picture.

You’re one of the millions of people who believe that water is a precious resource and should be conserved. So you’re always keen to use the short flush lavatory setting in all, ahem, applicable circumstances.

You may also be one of the people who are a little grossed out by the thought of touching something that other people may have touched with, ahem, potentially dirty hands post ‘visit’.

You know, the door handle out of the public restroom that you’ve just seen someone use without washing their hands.  The slightly crusty looking cubicle lock.  That sort of thing.

I’m guessing that if you do have to touch such a thing, you might want to be in contact with it for the least amount of time possible and then give your hands (or finger tip) an extra attentive wash.

You’re still with me, right?

You’ll understand then why this sticker caught my eye and why I had to take a picture of it:

Yes, that’s right.  To save water, you must press – and hold – the potentially dirty handle for a longer time than the wasteful full-cistern flush through. (Actually, just look at that handle.  It’s evidently not clean. No ‘potentially’ about it. Urgh)

This feels like a strange piece of instruction when we’re surrounded by messages on a daily basis about saving water – and surrounded by adverts for cleaning products which kill 99.99% of all known germs (reinforcing the message that invisible dirt is both everywhere and bad).  In fact, most restrooms have the ‘Now Wash Your Hands’ signage, reinforcing the fact that they’re not the most hygienic of places.

While many people are prepared to do something a bit more difficult for a cognitively consonant result (walk to the shop rather than drive; pay a little more for FairTrade products etc), I’m left wondering whether the gross-out factor of touching and holding onto the handle over-rides an instinct to do a mildly inconvenient good in favour of the natural instinct for self-preservation (does the five second rule apply?  I literally shudder to think). 

There’s also the practical aspect to consider: post ‘visit’, I suspect that people want to vacate the premises as smartly as possible, not hang about with their hand on the handle, long pressing for the shortest flush.  

Personally, there’s a real cognitive dissonance here between wanting to do the right thing (save precious, probably potable, water) and a general level of disgust about what may, or may not, be on the handle which may, or may not, get more onto my hands the longer I touch the handle.

I accept – it is possible that this particular venue may have conducted research into patrons’ bathroom habits and found that encouraging the long flush generally resulted in lower levels of blockages and/or fewer ‘remainders’ from previous occupants (necessitating an initial short flush from the following occupant before use, reinforcing the idea of a dirty bathroom in the process and using more water overall), thus outweighing the cost and environmental benefit of saving water.

But my question is simple:  given the normative discourse around the need to conserve water and the perceived levels of danger from invisible dirt sold to us through advertising by cleaning companies, is this sticker actually creating a nudge that causes us to act against most other behavioural direction, probably needlessly wasting water as we do so?


2 responses to “I don’t make a habit of taking photographs in public restrooms, but…

  1. Those instructions are awfully confusing and counterintuitive. Here in Israel nearly all the toilets have 2 levers or buttons: a big one when you need extra water and a smaller one when you just need a little. I haven’t seen that in the US. It’s brilliant and I don’t know why it is not more widely used.

    Liked by 1 person

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