Five things about...Poo
Weaving psychology and science to unpick the wonders, weirdness and wackiness of one of our most primal activities
Hi, I’m Claudia Hooper – production assistant on Eavesdrop on Experts. You’re about to listen to a sneaky, bonus offering of Eavesdrop. This week, we bring you a special episode called 5 Things About Poo. Yep, Poo. So, I guess it’s less about Eavesdrop on Experts and more Eavesdrop on well, excrement. I’ll let Chris talk you through it.
Welcome to Five Things About. I'm Chris Hatzis. Five Things About is for you and your inner curious cat, the part of you that just loves to know what others know about inventions and ideas.
In each episode, we'll meet experts who'll share five insights from their field of work. You've heard the proverb curiosity killed the cat. The rest of the proverb is but satisfaction brought it back. So go on, knock yourself out and bring yourself back.
Today we explore five things about poo. Yep, you heard right, poo, human waste, faeces. It's something we don’t talk about openly. It can cause shame and embarrassment, but our toilet habits reveal a lot about our emotions, attitudes, culture and gender. It's also a serious issue. Faecal borne diseases are a major cause of death in many places around the world.
Our host today is Claire Darling, podcasting intern at the University of Melbourne. We're talking to Professor Nick Haslam from the University of Melbourne's Department of Psychological Sciences.
Universally, excrement is the main taboo term across, pretty much, all languages.
Nick is the author of Psychology in the Bathroom. It's a great read about the sociology of poo. We'll also hear from Naomi Francis, a PhD candidate at the Nossal Institute.
We have toilet graveyards around the world.
Naomi's investigating the link between poor water sanitation and hygiene in Timor-Leste. As part of her research, she asks people where they defecated that morning. So luckily for us, she's well practised in having awkward conversations.
Hi Nick. Preparing for this episode sparked a very candid conversation about poo amongst my colleagues. In particular, we talked about that time around 11 AM, when our caffeinated mornings find us all migrating to the office toilets. Each of us had different feelings about how we approach pooing in a shared toilet. It's an embarrassing event for many of us. Nick, why are some people so fearful about going to the toilet in public?
Well, I think it's a very private act, and it's something which strong emotions are attached to. For instance, people often feel disgusted about the process. You're taught from an early age that your poo is something to be gotten rid of and forgotten about and flushed away. There's a lot of shame to do with it. You're exposing your body in a way you wouldn’t do in public.
I think also, especially for women, there is more concern about being pure, clean, proper and, in the words of one study participant on a study on this topic, women are meant to be non-poopers. It's something which somehow goes against femininity, if you like. Not to say that there's lots of anxieties about going to the bathroom for both men and women. There's enormous anxiety to do with it, partly, as I said, exposure, partly the fact that there's a lot of disgust and shame attached to this very human practice everywhere.
So how is this taboo around human poo - how has that developed over time? Is it as big an issue now as it was, say, 100, 200 years ago?
I think it's always been an issue, and it's an issue for a very good reason. I mean a huge number of children die each year because of faecally transmitted infections. There are very good reasons to get rid of your excrement. It is a primal contaminating substance. I think a lot of us get that. I mean there's a wonderful survey done of the British public a while ago, which were - they were asked to say which are the most important inventions of all time, and number nine was the flush toilet, right above the combustion engine. People get it. People get how it is important to be rid of this stuff.
Now, that’s not to say it's an instinct. So people often imagine that there must be some sort of instinctive aversion to excrement, but you only have to look at very small children to realise there's no instinct. They’ll smear things. They do all sorts of horrible things.
My favourite study of this was done with two year olds by the American psychologist Paul Rosen. What he did was he constructed a fake poo out of peanut butter and smelly blue cheese, put it on crackers and offered it to two year olds, and almost all of them took it and ate it, even when told what it was, which, of course, it wasn’t.
So there's no instinct of aversion. You have to learn it. But once you've learned it, I think, even as an adult, there's this taboo attached to it; not necessarily one which inspires horror, but that anxiety, and the fact that we make humour of this is partly a way of acknowledging that there's some sort of taboo charge attached to it.
Diarrhoea caused by dirty water and bad sanitation is the second biggest killer of children worldwide. PhD candidate, Naomi Francis, has been working with WaterAid to improve access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene in Timor-Leste.
The biggest problem we're worried about with poo and containing it is diarrhoea. Lots of diarrhoea is caused by stuff found in poo. Our poo has lots of pathogens in it, and they come in several formats. One is viruses, and they're a small infectious agent that replicates inside the living cells of other organisms. So that’s one.
Bacteria are another. They're just single celled micro-organisms. Protozoa, another one, another kind of single cell micro-organism. And then there's helminths, which are parasitic worms. Those are the four main players involved in causing disease in our poo.
WaterAid states that three in 10 people in Timor-Leste lack safe water, and twice as many have nowhere to go to the toilet but out in the open. Can you tell us more about the situation there?
The biggest issue is what we call open defecation, which is a fancy word for shitting in the bush basically. That could be in rivers, usually in a private spot, in the forest. Sometimes it's in the ocean. It doesn’t just refer to going and finding a random spot. Open defecation includes unsafe forms of sanitation, so someone may have built a specific structure or place for going to the toilet, but if it's not safely containing faeces, then it's considered open defecation.
In these remote communities people are usually accessing water from what we would call unsafe sources, so open sources like springs or rivers or creeks. Those are fine as long as they're protected and you can be sure that they're not being contaminated by what's going on upstream, and that might be open defecation or animals or industry. So a lot of these communities aren’t accessing safe water.
In terms of their sanitation practices most of the community will be defecating in the open, and in terms of hygiene, because of a lack of convenient water sources, so they're having to carry their water. They're not washing their hands as frequently as they should. There's less than safe levels of menstrual hygiene management. The main things that are going on is that people don’t have access to safe water or a safe way to deal with their faeces.
So how do community led programs address these issues?
This technique that WaterAid are using is - it's really tapping into - or it's trying to, I guess, use people's feelings of disgust and shame around faeces to trigger them into changing their behaviour.
The way it's done in the villages that I saw in Timor-Leste were there's a community meeting that’s held, and the community are asked to draw - or make a community map out of coloured sand on the ground. On that map, various people are asked to mark out where they defecated that day. It's meant to be a little bit embarrassing, but it's meant to be funny, and usually it is. In all the contexts that I saw people were a bit uncomfortable, but there was lots of laughing and fooling around with it as well.
Then a second part of the activity is to actually go for a walk out in to the community to find places where people have defecated. The facilitator will take a stick with them. They’ll find a piece of poo, put the stick in it, bring it back to the group, they’ll get one of their hairs and put it on the faeces on the stick and then put that in a glass of water. This is all to symbolise that a hair is as big as the legs of a fly, and it's just to show the faecal oral pathway via that fly route.
Then they’ll offer the glass of water around to people in the group and, obviously, no-one will drink it. But they're really trying to bring home to people what the faecal oral pathway is and what's going on when they shit in the bush and don’t cover it up.
Nick, how is the language and the way we talk about poo related to the psychological responses that we have?
Universally, excrement is the main taboo term across, pretty much, all languages. It's also the most common thing that people with Tourette's Syndrome blurt out: faecal words like shit. That sort of shows it's the - really seen as the most offensive thing to say because people who lose those inhibitions express it those ways.
Apparently, there's 10 different meanings of the word shit in swearing. You know this makes sense. The taboo words we use to express strong emotions are the ones attached to the most primal taboo subjects, usually sex, excrement and god. So although these excrement related words are universally taboo and widespread across almost all languages, they're more used in some languages than others.
There's been cross-cultural studies on swearing, on how people respond to someone who's violated some social rule. Especially Germans and Americans, it's been shown, tend to use more anally themed swearing. So it's more in some cultures than others - maybe the more Anglo Saxon ones - but, nevertheless, it's fairly universal as a theme, as a taboo theme, because it's a taboo issue for all human beings.
Can you tell us more about the role gender plays in going to the bathroom?
Sure. It's one of the areas where I think we often forget that there are pretty significant differences. So people talk an awful lot about the sexual double standard, but I think there's also an excretory double standard. I think women are held to much higher standards of odourlessness, soundlessness. Women tend to be more bothered about using public rest rooms. At least the studies show that.
One terrific study showed that women are really penalised socially if they are seen as going to the bathroom. An experiment: either male or female, left the room in the study and told the participant in the study that they were going in one condition to the bathroom, and the other condition just to get some papers.
Then the impressions of the participant of the experimenter were observed. The woman who said she was going off the bathroom was judged more negatively than the one who'd just gone to get some papers, but there was no excretion penalty for the male experimenter. There's something incompatible between femininity and excretion, I think, in the popular mind.
Women are also more, on average, censorious towards things like flatulence. They object more. They find some of these things, on average, more offensive. So gender plays a big role here. I think, in part, that’s because men play up their grossness as a reaction against femininity because femininity is associated with being proper, with being clean, with being neat. One way to display raucous masculinity is to do the opposite.
According to Naomi Francis females have added challenges in low income settings like Timor-Leste.
The specific gender needs of people using toilets are the same all over the world. For women their specific needs are around menstrual hygiene management and around pregnancy. When you're thinking about getting people to use toilets you need to take the menstrual hygiene management needs of women into account. That usually includes having a larger space for changing clothes or for washing clothes. That means also having a place where you can have water and drainage in the toilet.
In a low income setting that’s particularly important because women are often using rags, rather than disposable products. But the main thing is the privacy, I guess. That means having a toilet that is specifically for women. It needs to have doors that lock from the inside properly. Programs these days that deal with menstrual hygiene management also look at the psychosocial elements of it, so the stigma around menstruation.
Nick, Freud talked about the anal personality type. What's your take on this?
Well, my take on this is that he was actually right about describing a kind of person. Freud said there was this - what he called the anal triad of personality traits that tend to go together. They were orderliness, being perfectionistic, requiring things to be just so and rigid. There was obstinacy, being stubborn and irascible. And there was parsimony, which is basically being tight with money or concerned about not wasting things, not wasting time.
It turns out that those things do, in fact, go together. Those characteristics are a part of the recognised type of person. The trouble is Freud thought that these things stemmed from toilet training practices, that there was a group of people who had these traits who remembered, as children, taking pleasure in retaining their faeces. There's absolutely no evidence for that.
So Freud was right in describing a kind of personality. It's real, and it's actually still in the diagnostic manual of psychiatry to this day. It's called obsessive compulsive personality disorder. It completely precisely matches Freud's description of the anal character, but it's got nothing to do with the anus.
Naomi, can you tell us about toilet graveyards and how your community led program may offer a different solution?
You can go all over the world in low income settings and see toilet graveyards everywhere because NGOs and governments that have thought what we need to do is build toilets because they don’t have the money to build them, whereas, actually, it's a much more - I guess a psychologically based reason for not using them.
What we've found since is that people didn’t actually end up using the toilets, and so we have what is called toilet graveyards around the world where there's these beautifully constructed toilets that aren’t being used anymore, or they're being used for anything but defecation. So I've seen people cooking in their toilets because you've got this nice concrete basin that you can put a fire in.
Some toilets you would often find full of faeces, but it would be cow dung which is being dried out because that will be the driest place in the village. People are definitely using them for interesting things, but not what they're intended for.
My research is looking at what that event changes basically. I measured sanitation indicators before that triggering meeting. What I found was that a lot of people had started building their toilets or had made active plans to build a toilet. They were starting to get materials, that kind of thing, in that one week after. Six to nine months later there was a bit of a spread. Some people still had not started building toilets. Some of them had built toilets but those toilets had already broken down.
Other people had built and maintained and were improving their toilets. They were adding concrete to it or they were adding - what they call ‘atanki’, which is a little concrete tank next to the toilet for washing themselves afterwards. There were all levels of responses at that long-term follow-up.
Nick, tell us what measures do some people take to conceal their toilet habits?
We're talking about anxieties about using bathrooms. This, I think, has got a long history. There's a terrific anecdote, a sad anecdote, from the early 20th century of two sisters who worked in a mill and had to walk past a particular window where they could be observed by male workmates every time they had to go to the loo.
They found that so unpleasant that they ended up not going, and ended up only being able to go on weekends, both of them, and having to spend most of Sunday evacuating their bowels because they developed this inhibition about being observed by male workmates. I think this sort of concern about being observed is really widespread.
Apparently, in Japan you can buy machines that make white noise so that you can disguise your sounds. They're very widely used, especially by Japanese women, I gather. This is something where people don’t like being exposed. Even if they're in private, they would rather have this illusion that no-one else is around.
What would be a course of action to improve upon that person's phobia?
It's easy to make light of this subject, but it actually could be quite serious. Some of these problems can be quite debilitating. Look, I think the thing to do is to get in touch with a psychologist who specialises in anxiety. They’ll do a program of treatment which gradually helps you to feel less anxious, more relaxed, less threatened, and guide you through a process of learning to have fewer inhibitions in this kind of area.
That’s five things about poo. It's possibly a little bit more than five. We're good with words, just not with counting. Thanks to Claire Darling, Professor Nick Haslam and Naomi Francis from the University of Melbourne.
This podcast was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on 23 February 2017. Producers were Chris Hatzis, Carley Tye, Susanna Cornelius, Claire Darling and Andi Horvath. Audio engineering by Arch Cuthbertson. The Five Things About Podcasts is a University of Melbourne training program created by Dr Andi Horvath.
Still curious? Nip over to our other podcasts, Up Close and Eavesdrop on Experts for more.
You’ve been listening to a bonus episode of Eavesdrop on Experts, called 5 Things About. Brought to you with assistance from Cecilia Robinson and me, Claudia Hooper.
Join us next time for the return of the regular, Eavesdrop on Experts.
Why is poo a taboo? How do our lavatory practices affect our health? What is a toilet graveyard? How can mapping our defecation spots help improve sanitation? Which cultures are the most likely to use excrement-related swear words?
Welcome to (slightly more than) five things about poo with guests Professor Nick Haslam from the University of Melbourne and PhD candidate Naomi Francis from the Nossal Institute, Melbourne.
Producers: Dr Andi Horvath, Carlie Tye, Susanna Cornelius, Claire Darling and Chris Hatzis
Editor: Chris Hatzis
Audio Engineer: Arch Cuthbertson
Voiceover: Claudia Hooper and Chris Hatzis
Banner image: Adobe Stock
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