Time to Take Back the Toilet (Ep. 190)

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(Photo: Kevin Zamani)

(Photo: Kevin Zamani)

We’re not asking that using a public restroom be a pleasant experience, but are there ways to make it less miserable? That’s one of the questions we ask in our latest Freakonomics Radio episode, “Time to Take Back the Toilet.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Public bathrooms are noisy, poorly designed, and often nonexistent. In this episode, we explore the history of the public restroom, the taboos that accompany it, and the public-health risks of paying too little attention to the lowly toilet. (In India, for instance, more households have phones than toilets.) Along the way, we learn about the design of public spaces and how their environments are shaped, particularly by sound.

You’ll hear from:

+ Ronald Milliman, a longtime professor of marketing at Western Kentucky University who, in part because he went blind, became a scholar of sound. We discuss a few of his many studies, including “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers” and “The Influence of Background Music on the Behavior of Restaurant Patrons.”

+ Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at NYU and author of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing and  Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come To Be As They Are.

Joel Beckerman, founder and lead composer of the sonic-design firm Man Made Music, and author of The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy.

Along the way, we touch on how the right music can reduce stress for surgical patients; help kids do better on math tests; and lead people to buy more wine.

You should also know (and probably do) that working in an “open office” (a.k.a. a cubicle farm) can make you more stressed, less productive, and generally grumpy, thanks to hearing everyone else’s conversations. The problem, says sound expert Julian Treasure, is that “we don’t have any earlids.”

And that’s why we love the Sound Princess, a Japanese gadget designed to mask the sonic assault in a public toilet.


I think you have got it just backwards, because I'd much rather hear the natural sounds of the public restroom than any sort of "music" that is likely to be piped in.

I wonder if anyone has ever thought to study the exclusionary effects of music in stores and such. Certainly there are stores - one national consumer electronics chain stands out - that I'll never go into again, simply because their idea of "music" is so offensive, and played at painful volume. At the other extreme, I choose to shop at a particular supermarket (WinCo) in large part because they don't play background music, so I can do my shopping in peace.

Howard Brazee

Public toilets is about the only place that I notice the music.

Howard Brazee

That Italian restaurant probably is the same chain (I'm not remembering the name), that's in Colorado. But lots of restaurants here have music.

Paul Groundwater

Stephen, Perhaps you should contact Brian Eno who had a similar issue with the sounds in and around airports! Enjoy.



That post about the gadget to mask toilet noises is from 2004 (that's 10 years ago), and I believe the device debuted a few years earlier than that. But it's just a gadget and hardly a common device. Maybe it's not even available anymore. I've lived in Japan over 20 years and have *never* seen this gadget – not in any hotel, public toilet, home – nowhere. You may be aware that in Japan, it seems novelty products are introduced simply for the purpose of gaining some (short-term) publicity. But please come to Japan and use our public toilets. Try a train station toilet, they seem to be kept very clean.

Yayoi M

I am from Japan and we do have a little machine in each stall of the bathroom if the owners put it there. I think it's because people would flush the toilet while going and wasting water that it started. You press a button and it makes noise similar to flushing (kind of like the sound of a water fall) and you can do your business while the sound goes for 10 seconds or so. You can continue to push it again if needed. One such machine was named Otohime which is a pun for a princess in a fairy tale and also means sound princess.


Never mind the music: Have you heard the noise the new "efficient" dryers make? The dB level is comparable to a jet engine!


If there's one thing I learned from the first book, it is to look at incentives. It seems to me that providers of public restrooms have very little incentive to provide any extra comfort for their patrons. The public restroom is a place of necessity with few viable substitutes or competition. I would even argue that there is an incentive to have it be uncomfortable so that users are not incentivized to stay any longer than they need to, to keep turnover as quick as possible, reduce lines, and get people back to the areas where they are providing or contributing value.

Samantha Pearce

I live in the UK so the stall issue isn't a big deal. What bothers me is bathroom inequity. Men get urinals & stalls, we only get stalls & on average women use these facilities more often & longer per visit. For those who say true equity would be too expensive, how would you feel if urinals were pulled out & men only had stalls just as women's bathrooms do? That would be more equal though a regressive step.

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Men get fewer stalls, though.

How do you define equity?

The "same number of facilities" is commonly done: one toilet for the most common size (small) of men's room (and no urinal), and one toilet (and no urinal) for the most common size of women's room.

If you want "same length of waiting", then you need to have twice as many toilets for women as for men, because women use toilets more frequently and are slower when they use them (due to pregnancy, menstruation, urinary tract infections, frail old age and other things that cause slower and more frequent toilet use for women regardless of "cultural" factors, like how long it takes to pull panty hose up over sweaty legs).


Isn't there in fact an incentive to make toilets as quiet as possible. A toilet stall is quite a private place, you could get up to lots of undesirable things in there and not be seen doing them. I don't need to say what those might be, we all have imaginations. But if the toilet is otherwise quiet you feel that you can be overheard even if not overlooked. So the silence incentivises doing what a toilet is intended for and nothing else, then getting out fast.


I am quite suprised this episode did not touch on the most effective solution in my mind. Instead of music, pipe in comically loud fart and plopping noises in bathroom. Due to the echo of bathrooms, no one will be able to distinguish actual noises from synthetic noises. It is quite effective. The only place I have seen it used is at Legoland in the western Chicago suburbs. I was in the bathroom laughing my head off from the noises. Any sound I would have made in the stall seemed dainty and inoffensive in comparison.

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If you did this in a restaurant, I think you would want a different kind of music, to emphasize the idea that this area was as far removed from your food as possible.


Isn't this fundamentally a cost vs benefit scenario? If Dubner could spec out his dream public bathroom - what would it incorporate? Would he take all of the Japan-esk ideas or not? What materials would be used? How many toilets would be in the space? Then, how much would it cost? Does the structure of a noise-less bathroom and any associated cost outweigh the benefit or vice versa?


Is there some reason I can't download your show from your website and have to go to the itunes store, obligatorily?



First of all, thank you for being so honest about what verges on being a phobia. (OK, mine is having an MRI, but I don't have to do it several times a day.) Personally, I don't worry about the noises I make or hear; it's an aspect of the way the body is designed. Masking these natural sounds at a time when millions of people in India, etc do not even have a rudimentary outhouse-type toilet is an unnecessary luxury.

The Japanese have a remarkable love of gadgets. Yes, there is often a button on the wall to generate a waterfall sound, but sometimes it is automatic. The toilet seat rises when you open the stall door. The toilet flushes when you stand up. The bidet controls are similar to the cockpit of a 747.

As for the very kind announcements that children should return home: you are cherry picking because daily life in Tokyo is a cacophony of warnings, cautions and trivial announcements. Stores bombard shoppers with loud background jingles, in store announcements, and sidewalk staff have microphones. Karel van Wolferen "The Enigma of Japanese Power" Chapter 7: "The Japanese, especially in the cities are made to feel like subjects rather than citizens. They are continually warned about dangers, reminded of the proper way to do things, gently chided. … people walking the streets are made to feel like potentially naughty children." No, thank you.

Most of your interviewees, and I think you as well, mostly used the euphemism "bathroom" - get over it: toilet, men's/ladies' room, restroom.

Acoustics and whether or not it is a floor to ceiling door etc are important but the biggest issue clearly is that women's toilet rooms should have about 50% more space than men's. Typically men breeze in and out while women line up.

Lastly, I agree with Levitt-sensei that you should wear headphones in the restroom. I do.



I thought this episode was great, especially the sections discussing the impact of music on sales. Ever since hearing it I have been listening for music in stores. I even discovered it on Amazon. The site has a small snowflake-shaped button at the top of the page that plays Christmas music while you shop! I thought that was a brilliant move on Amazon's part.


I once heard Bill Gates say that vaccines are "magic". It sounds as if drastic improvements in sanitation and sewage management in India could have a huge effect on child mortality as much as vaccines. But if toilet sanitation sounds like low-hanging fruit, then why hasn't it yet been addresssed?

Simeon Slade

An episode about the economics of background music or sound might have been interesting but this was drivel. Never have I responded as frequently and audibly with the remark: "Bullshit!"
I could have been listening to Pauly Shore's podcast and learned more interesting about the host's hangups.
The issue is Dubner's discomfort in public bathrooms. Welcome to humanity - we all shit and we all sound the same when we do. Instead of treating the environment perhaps we treat the individual. Instead of learning from Japan how to design a toilet perhaps we should be learning how abnormally sensitive they are.
And though Levitt claims to be invulnerable to that environment he still said he stays away from the "stall area" - so much for that claim. I may be with Levitt on the smell aversion but you know what my shit smells too.
How we went from shitting together in ancient Rome to trying to do it as inconspicuously as possible is an evolution akin to our reasonable aversion to bacteria - which might have it's own detrimental consequences..