Time to Take Back the Toilet (Rebroadcast)

Listen now:

Muzak masks awkward silence in an elevator; shouldn’t public bathrooms provide a sonic cover for awkward noise? (Photo: Kevin Zamani / flickr)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is a rebroadcast of “Time to Take Back the Toilet.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

Public bathrooms are noisy, poorly designed, and often nonexistent. What to do?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

*      *      *

Stephen J. DUBNER: Levitt, here’s a question for you today. Would you agree that you and I are fundamentally pretty different people?

Steve LEVITT: Yes.

DUBNER: OK, I would too. But of all the ways in which we’re different, what would you say is maybe the biggest difference?

LEVITT: Probably that you like people and I don’t.  

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s not what I was thinking of.


DUBNER: Here’s the one I’m thinking [of]: you seem to be almost entirely unaffected by your physical surroundings.

LEVITT: That’s completely true.  

DUBNER: Whereas you ridicule me for being too sensitive. Like, if the lights go out or something, you’re like, “Dubner, just keep working. What’s the problem?” But when you’re working or even filling out your horse-betting stuff, you could be in the desert, you could be in a room with 150 decibels. You’re a machine. It doesn’t matter to you. Would you agree that’s a pretty fundamental difference between us?

LEVITT: I think so. But there’s a downside to it, too, which is that I when I get dragged to nice places, I never appreciate them.

DUBNER: You don’t know how to behave.

LEVITT: Well, if I don’t care if I’m in a dingy pit or standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, then I get the feeling that other people appreciate things that I don’t appreciate.  

DUBNER: Maybe so. You make up for it in other ways. Here’s a scenario that really bothers me that I want to talk to you about today but you may be the wrong guy to talk about it to because I have a feeling it doesn’t bother you at all. You and I both travel a lot, fly a lot, and here’s my thing: airport restrooms particularly but public restrooms of all types are usually totally devoid of any music or other masking sounds. You walk in, and it’s like a library, punctuated by the sound of traveling men using toilets.

It drives me batty. Does that bother you? Do you even know what I’m talking about?

LEVITT: No. It doesn’t upset me the way that I’m sure it upsets you.  

DUBNER: Have you noticed it? We don’t need to get too graphic here, although with radio, it’s probably easier to get graphic. You walk into a men’s room and, let’s say, there’re three zones, right? There’s the sink zone, the urinal zone and the stall zone. It’s the stall zone that I’m talking about.

LEVITT: I try to stay away from the stall zone. I’m pretty good at staying away from the stall zone.

DUBNER: Believe me, I do too. But audio waves travel into the sink zone and the urinal zone and the in-and-out zone. When I hear what’s going on in that stall zone, I think, “How can I invest more heavily in gastroenterology because the needs of American men are plainly huge?” It just sounds like a MASH unit of people in gastric distress and I hate it.  You’ve never been bothered by this?

LEVITT: It’s disgusting, but honestly, I really try to avoid restrooms where there are lots of men doing fireworks. Maybe we’re not so different in that particular regard. It’s just that maybe my abilities to avoid these places are stronger than yours.

*      *      *

Here’s what confuses me: just about every public place you go to these days, you’ll hear music being played, or some kind of a soundscape. Stores, restaurants, the doctor’s office, the gym. The airport, the rental-car counter at the airport, the gas pump outside the rental-car counter at the airport. So that’s a lot of sound to deal with. And the one place you want to hear music — at least the one place I want to hear music — the public restroom: it for some reason features only the sounds of nature, which are, to some ears, unsettling.

Why is that? And how does all that music in other public places affect us? Does it really make us buy more in stores and eat more in restaurants? If you want to know the answer to questions like that, you have start with Ronald Milliman. He spoke to us from his cabin on Lake Barkley, Kentucky.

MILLIMAN: I’m in the western part of Kentucky.

Milliman’s retired; he spends a lot of time here, fishing.

MILLIMAN: Mostly bluegill and redear and bass and catfish. I like to fish for and catch catfish. Pretty much, I just like to fish. I just like being out on the lake. You go out in the early morning. It’s just so flat and peaceful. You hear the birds and hear the waves splash against the side of the boat. It’s just really nice.  

Milliman was a professor of marketing at Western Kentucky University. Before that, when he was getting his Ph.D., in Arizona, he worked at a radio station.

MILLIMAN: One of the assets that we had at the radio station was a FM subcarrier, where we could transmit background music into stores, doctors and dentists office[s], and that sort of thing.

This got Milliman to wondering …

MILLIMAN: I wanted some idea of what music affected…what kind of music to provide…and there wasn’t much of any research out there at all on it.

Muzak, the company that got famous for making background music, or elevator music, did make some research claims. But Milliman found it completely unscientific. He says they claimed their music did amazing things…

MILLIMAN: Reducing turnover, increasing productivity, helping in terms of job contentment — a number of things like that. As I recall, they even had some research that showed that it could increase the milk productivity of cows and the egg productivity of chickens — when I got into it, [it turns out it] wasn’t very scientific. But at any rate, because there was no research particularly done in that area, it’s something that I made note of and thought, “Gee, this is something that I could pursue.”

Now, there’s one more reason why Ronald Milliman might have been a little more interested than the average person in measuring the effects of sound:

MILLIMAN: I had perfect vision until I was 8. Through a very rare illness that I contracted when I was 8, I lost most of my vision. I had partial vision from about 8 to 17. Then, I lost my eyesight at 17 — the rest of what I had — through a very freak wrestling accident. I was a varsity wrestler on the high school wrestling team. I was totally blind through undergraduate and graduate school. Then there was a doctor in Houston that felt he could restore my vision.

By now Milliman was in his first academic job, at the University of Texas-Arlington. He went in for surgery:

MILLIMAN: … and sure enough, that did restore my vision. As a matter of fact, I had incredible vision. I had 20/15 vision, or 20/10 vision, or something. 20/20 is normal vision and I had much better than that for a while. But it was a real challenge to keep it because there were lots and lots of complications that I wasn’t hardly prepared for.

With these complications came many more surgeries — more than 50.

MILLIMAN: I had vision for about four years or thereabouts. I was actually driving a car and everything. Then, again, through complications, I lost it totally and permanently. So I’ve actually lost my eyesight twice.

Blind again, he turned back to sound for his research. There was a grocery story in the Dallas/Fort Worth area …

MILLIMAN: It just happened that I knew the manager of the store some…

This manager agreed to let Milliman set up an experiment.

MILLIMAN: We wanted to know whether the background music affected behavior in any way.

Here’s how they set it up. They’d play fast music, slow music, and no music, and see if it changed how people shopped.

MILLIMAN: Then comes the question, “How do you define slow and how do you define fast?”

Milliman and the other researchers played music for a group of people who shopped at the grocery store. They asked them: do you think this is slow music? Is this fast?

MILLIMAN: As I recall, the slow music was something like 72 or 74 beats per minute or slower.

So that would be something like this.

Or this:

MILLIMAN: And the fast music was something like 94, 96 beats per minute and faster.

Like … this:

Or this…

Now, the actual music they used in the experiment, slow or fast, would have no lyrics.

MILLIMAN: Then we positioned graduate students, [who] appeared to be ordinary customers, like they were looking at a can of peas or whatever.  

The grad students were equipped with stopwatches and notepads. They watched people and timed them as they shopped. One day they’d play fast music; another day, slow music; another day, no music at all. This went on for roughly two months, so they’d have plenty of observations. They also stopped shoppers as they came out of the store and asked them: “Do you remember if there was music playing in the store when you were shopping?” Here’s what Milliman wanted to know:

MILLIMAN: … how fast people traverse through the store, if it made any difference with how much they purchase or what they purchased. But the other part of the study was, “How aware of the music were they when they were in the store?” Were they real aware of the music playing or were they unaware of the music playing?

So what did they learn?

MILLIMAN: What we found was that with the fast music, they did traverse through the store more quickly.

What do you think happens when people move through a store more quickly? Yep: they don’t buy as much stuff. But what happens when you play the slow music?

MILLIMAN: Now, that’s a really interesting one because sales were significantly greater. I say significant. I mean literally in the scientific, statistical sense significantly greater sales with the slower music playing than with the fast, background music playing.

With fast music playing, the Dallas grocery store did about $12,000 in sales each day. With slow music: $16,000. Interestingly, most of the shoppers, when asked upon leaving the store about hearing music, didn’t recall whether or not they heard music. Furthermore, there wasn’t much of a statistically significant difference between no music and slow music, or no music and fast music, but between slow music and fast music, a difference. How did Milliman explain this?

MILLIMAN: The theory was and we have reason to believe this is pretty accurate is that people simply, as you slowed them down, saw more that they remembered that they needed. They saw more that they wanted. Sometimes, like you’ve probably done when you’ve shopped, you’re into the aisle and you glance down the aisle to see if there’s anything down there that you want or need.

For Milliman, the takeaway from this one study was pretty obvious:

MILLIMAN: It’s clear that music does affect people’s behavior in a lot of different ways.

This study was one of the first in the field that would come to be known as “atmospherics” — how sound and smell and other factors influence our behavior. Milliman did a ton of work in this area. One study was similar to grocery-store study but this time he did it in a restaurant. There, too, he found that slow music makes people linger — which is great news if you’re trying to sell more alcohol, or maybe dessert. And if you need to turn over tables faster? Yeah — bring on the fast music.

By now there’s been enough research that we know a good bit about how we’re affected by different types of music and other sound. The right music can reduce stress for a patient waiting for surgery; it can help a kid do better on a math test; classical music leads people to buy more wine than top 40 music. But the wrong music — or the wrong sounds — can be bad for you too. If you work in an “open office,” for instance, also known as a cubicle farm — you’re more likely to be stressed out, less productive, less satisfied.

That’s in large part because you’re getting a lot of stimuli that you didn’t ask for — like other people’s conversations and phone calls. And you can’t simply shut these out, no matter how good you think you are at concentrating. We all have a limited amount of auditory bandwidth and, as the sound expert Julian Treasure likes to say, “We don’t have any earlids.”

This becomes more of a problem when you’re hearing someone else’s noise, someone else’s music, everywhere you go. Everywhere except the one place where you want some music — the louder, faster the better, please. The bathroom. It’s time to take back the toilet.

WOMAN: Anything. Literally, anything would be better than nothing.

Harvey MOLOTCH: There used to be an Italian restaurant in California that I would go to and they piped in Italian lessons. While you’re in the bathroom, you’re hearing, “Can you tell me where’s the train station?”

WOMAN [Italian]: Mi sa dire dov’è la stazione ferroviaria?

*      *      *

So there’s a lot of music in public places — in part because researchers have found that music has a strong influence on how people behave in public places. So you can see why they play music in stores and restaurants and airports and even surgical suites. But why don’t they play music in public restrooms? That’s the question we’re asking today. I know it may strike you as juvenile, the kind of thing no one in his right mind would ask — but we’re not the only people who’ve thought about this …

MOLOTCH: The toilet is, in a way, my landing spot because it’s where issues of city, artifact, and design all come together; particularly, in the public restroom.

That’s Harvey Molotch. He’s a professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University. Molotch’s broad mandate is urban design but he is, more narrowly, a toilet scholar. One of his books is called: Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.

MOLOTCH: Our knowledge of the history of public restrooms is very scattered. But one of the things that we do learn is the extraordinary variation that there has been in the history of the world.  In the Roman Empire, they had quite marvelous plumbing for their time the aqueducts and so forth. One of the things they applied that to was to public restrooms. The baths. The baths were, in general, a very social place. People went together. They met up together. Some of the rooms held as many as 60 people…

The setting, Moloch says, was quite beautiful, with mosaics on the floor and walls …

MOLOTCH: The toilets are arranged in a semicircle. They’re built of a single slab of stone with a series of holes. The people are sitting certainly as close together as we sit when we sit on toilets in public restrooms.

So there were no stalls — at least not what we think of as stalls today.

MOLOTCH: One of the interesting things is that they wore togas. The toga was their stall. By wearing the toga, you have a way of keeping your private parts private even as you’re sitting on the toilet.  

But Molotch agrees that modern public restrooms can be pretty unpleasant. And we shouldn’t really expect them to get better any time soon.

MOLOTCH: One reason it doesn’t change is that toilets, in general, in public restrooms there’s a taboo around them. Where there’s a taboo and you can’t speak freely about something, it becomes a place where there’s not accountability. Whereas the iPhone we can question, “How come it’s like this?  How come it’s like that? Wouldn’t it be better like this or that?” Or a sofa for the living room. You can’t really talk through a toilet.  

Now, it’s one thing for someone like me, the resident of the richest country in the history of the world, to complain about the setup of public restrooms. But let’s be real: this bathroom taboo that Molotch is talking about has much, much, much bigger implications.

MOLOTCH: The distribution of toilets of any kind is very skewed. In some countries, India being a prime example — Pakistan — there is an absence of facilities. What that means is that people go in the open. They use whatever trench they can find, whatever hole there might be. This is a problem with sanitation and it means that the mixing of human feces with water supplies happens and babies die. Almost 50% of the population of India is defecating under those circumstances.

One of the other aspects: it means that women are put at a huge disadvantage and subjected to security worries because they’ve got to make their way in the night, very often in darkness, to go to the common place where this is done because of other cultural problems, which is that the very idea that women are going to the toilet itself is a taboo and can’t be faced front-on.  

This taboo, Molotch argues, extends to high places, very high places. And that’s a problem.

MOLOTCH: For the President of the United States to go to bat for public restrooms in, say, India would be humiliation for him. We’ve got to get the topic on the agenda locally, nationally and globally.

There are also practical issues — issues of priority, and cost. Harvey Molotch has served on many building committees…

MOLOTCH: Even working with the most prominent architects of the world, never is there discussion about the substance of the toilet stalls. As a result, the lowest person typically on the totem pole of the architectural firm is given that job. Then they call up the mass supplier, and they just order the same stuff.

Joel BECKERMAN: One of the things that is interesting is thinking about public restrooms.

That’s Joel Beckerman, a composer and sound designer.

BECKERMAN: Think about all the architects and energy that gets put into designing the physical locations that we go to, whether its bus stations, restaurants, or hotels. The vast majority of these instances, they are not putting nearly the same amount of thought into the sound of those spaces; which includes what materials are being used because that determines the reverberation of sound.

Beckerman’s company, Man Made Music, creates soundscapes for all kinds of spaces, from small to very large, like the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. He’s written a book about this, called Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy. He has a lot of examples of how sound functions in ways we wouldn’t necessarily think about.

BECKERMAN: In Moscow, their subway is a circle. It’s basically a big loop. One of the ways they give you information in an instant is that one direction, I’m not sure whether it’s clockwise or counterclockwise, all the announcements are made by a male voice. Then, in the opposite direction in the loop, it’s made by a female voice. Even if you can’t understand exactly what’s being said, you know which direction that train is going.

Beckerman agrees with Harvey Molotch that the sound of the average American public restroom is sub-optimal. They start with one obvious problem: the walls of the stalls aren’t really walls. They don’t go all the way up to the ceiling or down to the floor.

MOLOTCH: I’ve lived in Britain. I’ve lived in Germany. They have walls. Italy has walls. Stall walls. That’s step one. Then, if you want to get really groovy, like the Japanese…

It may not surprise you to learn that bathroom design in Japan is rather advanced. For instance: the “sound princess.” As the story goes, Japanese women were so put off by the silence in public bathrooms that they’d flush the toilet over and over again to mask the noise. Which worked but also used a lot of water. The solution: a device that mimics the sound of the toilet flushing.  The Japanese use sound in all sorts of interesting ways. Many towns in Japan have intercoms mounted on public buildings through the city. This one plays a daily message, around sunset.

INTERCOM [Japanese]: This is Matsudo City Hall…

That’s in Matsudo, about an hour outside of Tokyo. The woman’s voice is basically telling kids “it’s time to go home.” The intercoms are networked around cities to serve as an emergency broadcast system, in case of earthquakes, for instance. Here in the U.S., we too have a history of sound design in public places. Joel Beckerman again:

BECKERMAN: The story is that elevator music began when elevator manufacturers realized that people were very uncomfortable being in close quarters in a closed room, essentially.

So you have to ask yourself: if we felt the need to mask uncomfortable silence in an elevator, wouldn’t you think we’d feel the need to mask uncomfortable noise in a public restroom? We stopped in to a ladies’ room — well, outside of a ladies’ room — to ask people what they’d like to hear inside:

Madelyn MAHON: What do you think would be the best kind of music in a bathroom? Like, what would you like to listen to?

WOMAN: Anything. Literally, anything would be better than nothing.  

WOMAN: Maybe classical music.

WOMAN: The Beatles.

MAHON: Always or different kinds?

WOMAN: Early Beatles in a public bathroom, I think, would always be appropriate.

WOMAN: I would probably choose to hear Hall & Oates.  

WOMAN: Beyonce 24/7.

WOMAN: I feel bad relegating them to the bathroom because I love them so much, but I love them so much that I would want to hear them that frequently.

WOMAN: Depends on the type of music. Like elevator music… everyone complains about that so bathroom music would turn into elevator music. Everyone would be like, “This sounds like bathroom music!”

The sociologist Harvey Molotch, in his tireless pursuit of toilet improvement, once came across something he loved …

MOLOTCH: There used to be an Italian restaurant in California that I would go to and they piped in Italian lessons. While you’re in the bathroom, you’re hearing, “Can you tell me where’s the train station?”

WOMAN: Can you tell me where the train station is?

MOLOTCH: …and then you hear it in Italian.

WOMAN [Italian]: Mi sa dire dov’è la stazione ferroviaria?

MOLOTCH: There are many ways to do it that are amusing, charming and you can have new groups audition and create new acts.

And Joel Beckerman would like to improve the sonic design of airport restrooms:

BECKERMAN: In a plane terminal, you’d want to be relaxed a little bit. People generally are a little bit nervous when they go flying. What could we do in terms of putting quiet ambiences in that would mask out the unwanted sound and actually relax people before they got on a plane?

I went back to Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, to see where he landed on this …

DUBNER: OK. Even you agree that it’s not a great thing to listen to, especially if you’re an innocent bystander. Here’s the paradox: it’s not great to listen to and yet, there’s very rarely music or other masking noise in public restrooms. Whereas in every other public area — hotel lobbies, airports, stores, restaurants, etc. —  there’s a lot of music in public these days; which can be great or horrible depending on your preference.

Don’t you think it’s a little bit strange that the one place that I, at least, want a lot of music, [it] doesn’t exist and other places where we might not want it, it does?

LEVITT: Given your description, how loud would the music have to be in order to protect you from the sounds you’re afraid of? Pretty loud, right?

DUBNER: It would sound like the loudest rave you’ve ever been to.

LEVITT: I think that’s part of the problem. If there was subtle music that was interfered with by the sounds that disturb you so much, that would only enhance your rage, wouldn’t it?

DUBNER: If it were subtle music? You’re saying it would somehow highlight or punctuate the bad sounds?

LEVITT: Exactly.

DUBNER: Really?

LEVITT: I don’t know. It would be hard. From what you’re describing, the sounds are so loud that they’re louder than conversation, right?

DUBNER: Yeah. But there’s something about them as pieces of punctuation in the midst of this pronounced silence that, to me, draws that much more attention to them. The restroom at WNYC, the radio station in New York where I do this show — you walk in there and it really is like a funeral home. You just hear little pitter patter and then there’s a couple stalls back there and even if you’re just going to wash your hands, you get, “BLAM! BLAM!”

Then, the sounds of human distress and I’m thinking, “This doesn’t need to happen. This could be taken care of.” We’ve put men on the moon.  We’ve done a lot of amazing things. Maybe this is a problem that no one cares about but me and it’s not worth thinking about, but if we were to put your brain on it, any thoughts? Do you think it’s worth thinking about? Do you think the public restroom is a place that deserves a little bit of our curatorial attention?

LEVITT: No. I think this is like the penny: it’s something only you care about. No one else cares about it —  getting rid of the penny. But I don’t know. No. I don’t lose any sleep over it. Maybe I will now. Maybe every time I go in a bathroom I’ll be primed to be upset by it. But I just thought the answer.

DUBNER: Tell me.

LEVITT: Do you own a set of headphones?

DUBNER: Yeah. Believe me I wear the noise-cancellers. I do!

LEVITT: Why don’t you just wear your headphones and turn up your music really loud. Done. You don’t mind the smell though?

DUBNER: I don’t want to even get into the smell.

LEVITT: For me, the smell would be at the top of the list and the sound would be quite secondary. I would trade smell or sight for sound, myself.

DUBNER: Sight? Who’s bringing in sight? Now you’re polluting this already bad idea. You’re taking this already bad idea to a much darker place.

Coming up next time on Freakonomics Radio: we all know about the huge decline in manufacturing jobs.

David AUTOR: We would conservatively estimate that more than a million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. were directly eliminated as a result of China’s accelerating trade penetration in the United States.

Donald TRUMP: We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.

It’s the same story throughout most of the big, wealthy Western economies. But not this one:

Jens SUEDEKUM: We don’t hear that anti-globalization, anti-China rhetoric.

How did Germany come out on top?

Daniel STURM: Germany has a very unusual economic geography.

Uwe REINHARDT: In Germany, the unions have representatives on the board of the company.

Dalia MARIN: Germany is not a shareholder economy. It’s a stakeholder economy.

How did “the sick man of Europe” become its superstar? That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Suzie Lechtenberg. Our staff also includes Alison Hockenberry, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Stephanie Tam, Eliza Lambert, Emma Morgenstern, Harry Huggins and Brian Gutierrez; the music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or via email at radio@freakonomics.com.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:


  • Joel Beckerman, composer and sound designer.
  • Steve Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
  • Ronald Milliman, retired professor of marketing at Western Kentucky University.
  • Harvey Molotch, professor of social and cultural analysis and sociology at New York University.