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Don't rush to flush: Indiana University research measures bathroom behavior

  • June 15, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.. -- “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” has been a household refrain for years, but few Americans have adopted the practice. New research from Indiana University shows that flushing less often could significantly reduce household water usage, but disgust and contamination concerns keep Americans reaching for the handle.

Most people still flush every time they use the toilet and believe that others should as well, the research finds -- though men are much more likely than women to leave their urine mellowing in the bathroom.

As drought plagues western states, researchers say more Americans should reject the mentality that their personal water consumption is only a “drop in the bucket” and acknowledge that every drop counts. Flushing tops the list of water-intensive household activities and accounts for 27 percent of indoor usage. More mellowing could significantly reduce total water use.

Researchers Michelle L. Lute, Shahzeen Z. Attari and Steven J. Sherman conducted an online survey of more than 1,000 Americans that focused on attitudes toward flushing. Lute is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, where Attari is an assistant professor. Sherman is Chancellor’s Professor in the cognitive science program and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The survey began with a simple question: “How often do you flush after you urinate at home?” It measured the beliefs and behaviors of “always flushers” against “occasional flushers.” Findings include:

  • The four main reasons that people flush after urinating are: disgust, habits, beliefs about cleanliness and a lack of pro-environmental motivation.
  • People underestimate both their own and the average American’s water usage.
  • Most people (63 percent) always flush after using the toilet and believe that others should as well.
  • Women flush more than men. About 67 percent of women reported always flushing, compared to 61 percent of men.
  • People are more likely to flush before using the toilet when encountering a guest’s urine rather than their own or a significant other’s urine.

“We chose to look at flushing because it’s something people do multiple times a day without thinking,” Lute said. “Other sustainability campaigns -- like reducing shower times or turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth -- may be effective, but their total impact is minimal. We were looking for a simple way to significantly influence daily water use.”

The findings are compiled in “Don’t Rush to Flush,” an article that will be published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

To reduce needless flushing, the authors acknowledge that Americans must tackle their feelings of disgust and fear of contamination when encountering urine.

“We want to start by getting people talking, but we’re not content to simply recommend ‘putting out more information,’" Lute said. "Instead, we’d love to see new innovations in the marketplace, like environmentally friendly products that can mask the smell and color of urine left behind.”

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Michelle Lute

Michelle Lute

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Shahzeen Attari

Shahzeen Attari

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Steven J. Sherman

Steven J. Sherman

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Media Contacts

Jim Hanchett

  • School of Public and Environmental Affairs
  • Office 812-856-5490
  • jimhanch@indiana.edu

Steve Hinnefeld