Friday Weird Science: The Social Psychology of Flatulence

Mar 23 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science

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?!?!?!"

Yup!


(Source)

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.
and
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

38 responses so far

  • Sciwo says:

    Did you read Nick Kristof's editorial earlier this week about odor, hand-washing and moral judgements. He mentioned a study using fart gas. :-)

    • scicurious says:

      I didn't see that!!! Do you have a link to the study? I exceeded my NY Times views for the month already. :(

      • Sxydocma1 says:

        Sci. I think, if you delete the cookies on your computer, you can reset your 20 article limit on your computer. At least, this is what my husband tells me.

        • Sebastian says:

          Yes. That's the easy way around the nytimes pay wall. There's a nice plugin for chrome which allows site-specific cookie deletion...

  • Nicolas Fanget (@nfanget) says:

    "After all, how many people do you know can release a silent, deadly fart ON COMMAND?": I know exactly one, and I'm sure he would be available for studies if the price is right.

    • enkidu says:

      I know a bunch of people who can burp on demand, that study would be a piece of cake. As for farting on demand... feed them green chili burritos and wait.

      • Experimenter says:

        @enkidu
        If you swallow air in order to burp on demand, and if you let that air remain without burping, the excess air WILL eventually pass through your digestive system and come out at the finish line.
        It seemed to take 1-2 hours, a bit faster than some alternates.

        However, in my case of self-experimentation, it was not rank.
        That can be good or bad, depending on your goals.
        Mine was just to see what would happen, if anything.

        @scicurious
        Other people have these thoughts.
        Maybe not in such fecundity, but they have 'em.
        So, thanks for taking the time to expound on some of them.
        Life unexamined....

  • Raj Dwivedi says:

    This has to be the best thing I read this morning. Dr. Lippman's answer on the nice little chain of events of the sound evoking the negative feelings toward a fart are true and funny. Your whole post is very funny. Thank you!

  • @deadendrite says:

    "(girls, we've all been there I'm sure) "

    Yes... certain lunch choices should be avoided if you are planning to attend any sort of aerobics class that involves jumping jacks or related forceful movements... (which is why I caution against the running way fast when you feeling it coming part).

  • Pascale says:

    I know people who can fart on command; they generally precede the act with a request to "pull their finger."
    I'm pretty certain that there's one in every family...

    • rimiha says:

      That is less a matter of "on command" and more of "I feel it coming, let's make it funny" ... if you think that sort of thing is funny, of course.

  • [...] saying witty engaging things… but not things like, “did you read the study called Toward a social psychology of flatulence: The interpersonal regulation of natural gas? “wasn’t that fascinating? No? [...]

  • SHELLEY says:

    I think that UNDETERRED is certainly the appropriate word in this story.

  • [...] writes about “the elusive Lippman” and his fairly famous flatulence study. Here’s an excerpt (of the writing about that, not of Lippman‘s study): …I [...]

  • In Australia TV station SBS showed a French 4 part series on Poop & farting it referred to it as Roses, so as not to be offensive, but covered every aspect in good detail.
    It could be around, I don't have a link.

  • arias says:

    So I was really bummed that this intriguing question wasn't answered:

    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?

    There does seem to be some psycho-social mechanism that inhibits flatulence, at least to some degree, in a social context and I always wondered whether this phenomenon had been studied.

    I've also always also wondered about those people that are able to whistle songs out of their butt. There are some rather amazing stories littered throughout history of very musically talented individuals with this unique skill set.

  • inam101 says:

    The article was very funny and the funny thing is everything was true.
    Culture and localization plays a very big role in attitude towards flatulence, and the change can occur in adjacent localities. And one big factor is education.

    The main question:
    Quoth Sci to Mr. S: Did you ever notice that you need to fart less when you're in public?
    Mr. S: What...

    I think you are under pressure to not do so, unconsciously, and so you fart less, but when in bed or bathroom, there is no such pressure and....

  • martinet says:

    My mother and I spent years being appalled by the fact that my father farted happily and unashamedly at work. He always claimed that holding them in wasn't possible. Clearly he's just a sociopath.

    (I'm curious if Mr. Lippman considered the gender of the hypothetical farter--not just the respondent to the fart--in the study. I think men farting may be considered less obnoxious than women farting--I think culturally it's considered something that men just DO, and women aren't supposed to let on that they do, if they do at all. I'd be curious if women farting get more sympathy from women (a la "it's happened to all of us, girls") or from men (who'd be totally grossed out that a woman wasn't in sufficient control of herself).)

  • Huey Dilauro says:

    Hey there! I could have sworn I've been to this blog before but after checking through some of the post I realized it's new to me. Anyways, I'm definitely glad I found it and I'll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

  • blackbeard says:

    This important research should be added to Facts On Farts.

    http://www.heptune.com/farts.html

  • [...] Twas an essay we chanced upon in our daily web wanderings, from the blog Neurotic Physiology, entitled “Friday Weird Science: The Social Psychology of Flatulence.” [...]

  • rowC says:

    Is there a socially acceptable response to a fart (like saying "Bless you" when someone sneezes)? If not, I think we should create one. Any suggestions?

  • anon says:

    If CPP were to respond to the question, what would he say?

  • mickey says:

    PP would certainly say: whatte the fucken fucke are you fuckin' about?

  • Guest says:

    I like to share my farts with the world when I get them.
    I try to stretch my farts out into walkin farts.I pretend Im a car or train powered by farts,and my farts move me along to my next destination.
    I cant smell my farts most of the time,but when I do,they stink.

  • Eileen says:

    I lived in Mali, West Africa for two years. The customs for bodily noises were fascinating and rather amusing. Burping, picking your nose, and snot rockets to clear out your nose were perfectly acceptable and commonplace. However, passing audible gas was completely, absolutely, and totally taboo. I had to learn to pass gas silently, smell did not matter so much. In such a stifling hot country, there were a lot of other smells happening, especially body odor, so they all sort of commingled. In the two years I was there, I only heard a Malian fart once. It was a close female friend, just as we sat down with her family to eat lunch. When the unexpected sound squeaked out, the reaction was almost like a cell phone ringing at a classical theater. There was a silent gasp. The offender froze for a moment and then quickly mumbled something, essentially blaming it on her newborn baby. Everyone kept their heads down and awkwardly began eating lunch.

  • [...] from “The Social Psychology of Flatulence” on Scientopia [...]

  • [...] מחקר כמעט בכל נושא איזוטרי שיעלה בדעתכם, כמו למשל ההשפעה על תפיסת הפרט בחברה של נפיחותיו בציבור. כן, כן, מישהו בדק את זה וללא ספק הגילוי ראוי לזכות את [...]

  • [...] to fart in public has any influence on the number of times we do actually fart in public. And, yeah, it turns out there really was someone who looked into that sort of [...]

  • [...] all know now that there's a social psychology of flatulence (the paper for today's post came from the comments section of that one, where someone pointed out a [...]

  • Boyls says:

    In junior high once, I was getting ready for gym class when, without the slightest warning whatsoever other than that I had and still have a tendency of producing more than what I would consider the average amount of gas a human normally produces, I felt a rather large pocket that needed to be released. After trying to hold it desperately within myself, but alas, the dam was going to burst, and I consigned myself to my fate of ridicule. However, this turned out to be not the case. It was a silent and oh so deadly, and I managed to smell it first. I casually got up and moved to another part of the locker room. And then the protest ensued. Followed by evacuation. I wish I was kidding when I say that no less than half of the locker room removed themselves from the vicinity shrieking in pain in behalf of their nostrils. During the commotion, another student was accused of dealing my rank. I never rightfully claimed what was mine, and I've felt guilty about the whole ordeal ever since. This has been good therapy. Thank you for your patience.

  • Sebastian says:

    There's a quote attributed to Martin Luther (the German Religious reformer): "why aren't you burping and farting? Didn't you enjoy the meal?" if true this would clearly indicate that in the 16th century farting in social situations was tolerated an even considered proper manners. Another clue would be, that in ancient Rome communal toilets were commonplace - no stalls there but just latrines in a room where the citizens would meet in the morning for their regular bowel movements. These have been found at many archaeological sites and there's plenty of references in the ancient Latin texts...

  • icesk8ermom says:

    I am writing a research paper for a school assignment on flatulence and would love a copy of Dr. Lippman's research article. Can you send me an electronic copy?

    ~Thank you

  • Marie says:

    Hi! I'm also writing a paper on this one. Please send me a copy of the article too. Thanks so much!

  • Frederick Hansen says:

    'God bless you' is a common english expression addressed to a person after they sneeze. Why not after they fart. All humans fart, and sneeze. Both are natural bodily functions. The church should accept the the word fart for obvious reasons related to church seating. The bible tells us God created man in his own image. Draw your own conclusions.

  • […] all know now that there's a social psychology of flatulence (the paper for today's post came from the comments section of that one, where someone pointed out a […]

Leave a Reply