With many of my Friday Weird Science posts, it starts with a random thought. I like to think that most people have thoughts like this and just don't tell polite society, thoughts like "Do people all have a favorite bathroom stall at work or is it just me? Did dinosaurs have penises? What did they look like? Why do some women claim sexual pleasure from working out at the gym? How does that work?"
Please tell me other people have these thoughts. If not...I think I'm much more alone on this planet than I thought.
Anyway, today's post started with the following thought:
Quoth Sci to Mr. S: Did you ever notice that you need to fart less when you're in public?
Mr. S: What...
Sci: No really! Is there such a thing as social inhibition of flatulence? Do people generally fart more alone?
Finding that Mr. S had no scientific data to offer on this point, I took to the Twitters, which is where many of my random thoughts end up. I would make a storify of what resulted for your amusement, but unfortunately Storify only goes back so far. Suffice it to say that I scoured the internet looking for someone, ANYONE, who had studied farts. It turns out that 1870 people on Pubmed have published on flatulence, but none of them had really looked at the PSYCHOLOGY of the fart. I was in despair, until Jason at The Thoughtful Animal found me a citation. Lippman, 1980. I searched some more, but no one seemed to have the paper. Finally he and I tracked down the elusive Lippman, who is on the Editorial Board of the Annals of Improbable Research. Given that his 1980 paper was titled "Toward a social psychology of flatulence: the interpersonal regulation of natural gas", I figured this was the right guy.
I was right. Email contact established, Dr. Lippman was kind enough not only to snail mail me the hard copy of the paper (which I will, I promise, scan and produce in PDF for posterity), he also was kind enough to answer many of my questions. Questions like "Did you REALLY do a FART STUDY?!?!?!"
Lippman, LG. "Toward a social psychology of flatulence: The interpersonal regulation of natural gas". Psychology: a Quarterly Journal of Human Behavior, 1980.
The story behind this paper is almost as great at the paper itself. Dr. Lippman is a truly funny guy, who gave me a very detailed story of the "why" behind this paper, but it appears to boil down to this.
1) Lippman's acqaintance Jim McConnell starts a newsletter called "Worm Runner's Digest", originally focused on studies with planaria. But soon he starts writing funny little stories to go in there as well. He soon wanted to start a journal, but enjoyed his funny stories so much he didn't want to give them up. So he starts a 2 for 1 journal, like those old Sci-fi novels. The right side upside (on the right side pages, which you would read in the correct order starting from page 1) contained the Journal of Biological Psychology, while the left side pages were printed upside down to be read backward (starting at the end, after flipping the journal upside down), and contained Worm Runner's Digest, the journal of science humor.
2) Lippman thinks this is cool, starts writing stories for the Worm Runner's Digest. Given our recent correspondence, I would be very sad if these were lost to history, because he's a very funny guy and I bet some of these were fantastic.
3) After some brief experimentation with a study of ethanol (gin) on tonic immobility in chickens (real study right side up, and an upside down Worm Runner's Digest piece called "Gin and Tonic Immobility" questioning why two such clucky scientists would perform eggregious research), Lippman decides to write up a study that kind of a...caricature of social psychology. How to do a funny send-up of social psych? Well, farts are really funny! Lippman did the study, wrote it up, was all ready to send it in...
4)...and the journal folds. Undeterred, Dr. Lippman set about finding another journal that would publish an article on farts. He finally found one, and the paper was born.
Lippman mentioned to me that he doesn't feel the introduction and discussion are very strong: "I had a long history of reading students' lab reports without benefit of protective headgear. So in writing up the report, I suspect that my judgment had been somewhat warped...". In fact, the introduction was deliberately weak and uncited, and the discussion deliberately went far beyond the bounds of the research (my favorite part was something about women being ok with farts because mothering requires you to think they are ok, which is obviously rather silly, and a part in the introduction referencing a story from Arabian Nights involving an ill-timed fart). But the rest of the data and analyses are entirely true.
Real data, real stats, real subjects...but sadly NOT real farts. We'll get to that in a second. ONWARD, to the PAPER!
The basic question behind this paper is: how does a fart in social context affect a person's views of the farter? In order to study this, Lippman took a bunch of college students, and gave them a series of hypothetical situations in which someone farted. He asked them to rate their opinions of that person.
It's really sad to me that the situations were all hypothetical. This was part of Dr. Lippman's caricature of many social psychology studies being performed at the time, which tended to rely on pen and paper rankings while college students considered hypothetical situations. While it makes for a good caricature, I'm sad to know that my idealized vision of little knots of people with someone letting loose a silent'n'deadly never actually happened. And really, you have to think this would be a hard thing to plan. After all, how many people do you know can release a silent, deadly fart ON COMMAND?
So Lippman had students fill out surveys. In another poke at social psychology (which often involves 3 factorial designs), this one involved a FIVE-dimensional design. Just to go over the top. The variables were the following:
1) Whether you were in a group of strangers or a group of acquaintances.
2) Whether the fart was loud or silent.
3) Whether the fart was scentless or rank (the word used was in fact "rank").
4) Whether the fart was deliberate.
5) Whether the person taking the questionnaire and hypothetically "experiencing" the fart (the fart-ee?) was male or female.
Given all of these (say, you in a group of acquaintances, and one of them farts and it's silent and deadly and you KNOW who did it, but they probably didn't do it on purpose), the subjects were asked to rank the farter in a series of personality dimensions, like "careless", or "humorous", or "unsociable". The personality traits listed were in alphabetical order to make sure the students didn't pick up on negative or positive traits.
How did it turn out? Well, it turns out people will rank you politely if your fart is silent and odorless (probably because they couldn't tell), but politeness ratings go down somewhat for the silent and deadly, and take a sharper dive when the fart is LOUD. Sound matters more than smell in terms of politeness, apparently.
However, while people may not think you're polite, they WILL think your loud farts are funny, with people who fart loudly being ranked as more humorous (though women did not find it as funny as men). If they know you did it deliberately, however, they are more likely they rank you as "malicious", ESPECIALLY if the fart is rank (silent and odorless apparently means you're a relatively good person here).
The sex differences were a little surprising. It turns out that women are more forgiving of loud, accidental farts (girls, we've all been there I'm sure), and don't ding the farter so much on "politeness".
So so far: your reputation won't take so much of a hit if your fart was obviously an accident, and if you keep it silent. If you don't...well squeak your shoe really hard across the floor at the same time and hope it'll pass.
For the second test, the students were given another hypothetical scenario: Suppose you were in a group, of strangers or acquaintances...and you feel a fart coming on. How hard are you going to try to hold it in if:
1) You know it will be almost silent and not smell?
2) You know it will be loud and not smell.
3) You know it will be silent and knock a cow over at 50 paces.
4) You know it will be loud and turn the immediate area into a no fly zone.
For this experiment, people universally said they'd hold it back the most for the loud and room-clearing variety, and the least for the silent and odorless. But they also said they'd try much harder to hold it back if they knew the fart could be traced to them.
So the moral of this story? If you're in a social situation, and feel the fart coming on...well you could try and pass it off as funny, but if you know it's going to be loud, run while you still can. And if you know it's going to be rank...well, try and blame it on someone else.
I did have a few other questions for Dr. Lippman, and he was kind enough to answer them!
Do you think the rankings following hypothetical farts are primarily a result of culture? Are there cultures in which farting is not looked down upon?
Yikes. I know that one of my ex-colleagues was able to find "culture," whatever that is, in everything. So probably yes. I gather that in some cultures, a belch after dinner is considered in good taste as a polite indicator of a splendid meal. So I could imagine that there is a culture somewhere (at least on a remote planet) where a healthy fart bespeaks a great meal earlier in the day. That's the long reply. The short, obvious reply is: Damned if I know.
Do you have a hypothesis at to why there is a negative social connotation surrounding a harmless bodily function such as farting?
...this study was a one-time excursion well outside and beyond my "legitimate" areas of inquiry. So my guess is as good as yours. My guess is that our culture considers all bathroom/toilet functions as nasty. So we've been trained to view certain processes as repellent, and probably to abhor the odor of feces. Probably the odor of a fart sometimes matches the odor of feces, and the sound of a fart provides an alert to the potentially forthcoming exposure to a noxious odor. So you have a nice little chain of events that puts a negative meaning to a fart.
How do you think the rankings might compare for another function such as burping?
I think burps are considered funny, and there's gobs of supporting evidence in such lofty sources as episodes of The Simpsons. Sure, I'm sure someone could get meaningful results about burps. But then, I would assume that an olfactory dimension would play little role. Burps are funny, but farts are much more funny.
Farts. They're much more funny. 🙂
Lippman, LG (1980). Toward a social psychology of flatulence: The interpersonal regulation of natural gas Psychology: a Quarterly Journal of Human Behavior