UP OR DOWN? A MALE ECONOMIST’S MANIFESTO ON THE TOILET SEAT
ETIQUETTE
JAY P. CHOI∗
This paper develops an economic analysis of the toilet seat etiquette. I investigate whether there
is any efficiency justification for the presumption that men should leave the toilet seat down after
use. I find that the “down rule” is inefficient unless there is a large asymmetry in the
inconvenience costs of shifting the position of the toilet seat across genders. I show that the
“selfish” or the “status quo” rule that leaves the toilet seat in the position used dominates the
down rule in a wide range of parameter spaces including the case where the inconvenience costs
are the same. (JEL D7, H4) Dear Annie: I read with interest the letters about putting down the
toilet seat. I’ve been browbeaten by various women for the past 60 yr about proper seat etiquette,
starting with my mother. If I forget to put the seat down even once, my wife reminds me for
hours about this life-threatening situation. I know you said the last column was the final word on
the subject, but I hope you’ll reopen the issue. I want to ask women: Who gave you exclusive
ownership of the bathroom? If men are nice enough to put the lid down, why can’t you ladies lift
it up when you are done? When I suggested this to my wife, she wanted to have me taken out
and shot. It’s time to rebel!—Fed Up in Salem, Ore. Dear Fed Up: What is it about toilet seats
that excites people? We received hundreds of letters on this subject and decided the “last word”
would have to wait—Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar.1 I. INTRODUCTION Should the toilet
seat be left up or down after use? This is a question that arises when members of the opposite sex
share the same toilet. For some reason, this seemingly trivial question elicits passion from all
sorts of people. It has become a topic of national debates in popular *I thank Carl Davidson and
Roger Lagunoff for helpful discussions and many colleagues for sharing their experiences. I am
solely responsible for the views expressed in this paper. Choi: Professor of Economics,
Department of Economics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824. Phone 51-3537281, Fax 517-432-1068, E-mail choijay@msu.edu 1. Annie’s Mailbox by Kathy Mitchell and
Marcy Sugar, October 29, 2002. Annie’s Mailbox is written by Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar,
long time editors of the Ann Landers syndicated column. syndicated columns by Ann Landers
and TV sitcoms such as ABC’s “Home Improvement” and NBC’s “3rd Rock from the Sun.” It is
clear that this age-old debate is divided by the gender. Women complain that it should be the
man’s responsibility to lower the toilet seat after use. “Leaving the toilet seat up” is often
described as a problem, and there is even a toilet seat that goes down automatically after about 2
min, claiming that it has the perfect solution to the problem. Men seem to question why women
should be the free-riders all the time. To quote Larry James (2004), a personal relationship
counselor, “The most hotly contested battlefield in the gender wars may not necessarily be in the
bedroom. It may be the bathroom. The seat-up versus seat-down debate rages on ...” Despite high
emotions in the debate, scientific inquiries into this issue are sparse. In fact, it is not obvious why
there should be a presumption that men are expected to leave the toilet seat down after use.
Internet search generated the following noneconomic/scientific reasons for the down rule. First,
there is an argument that being considerate to one’s love partner’s needs supports things going
well in and out of the bedroom. To quote a phrase in the Internet (available at
http://www.celebratelove.com/littlethings.htm), “Foreplay begins with putting the toilet seat
down without being asked!” Second, it is not ABBREVIATIONS BPH: Benign prostatic
hyperplasia 303 Economic Inquiry (ISSN 0095-2583) Vol. 49, No. 1, January 2011, 303–309
doi:10.1111/j.1465-7295.2009.00277.x Online Early publication March 11, 2010 © 2010
Western Economic Association International 304 ECONOMIC INQUIRY good Feng-Shi to
leave the toilet seat up. Third, a toilet is not the most attractive household appliance. Closing the
lid improves its appearance and prevents things from falling into the bowl. The last argument,
however, proposes not only the seat down but also the lid down. In this paper, I investigate
whether there is any justification for the down rule based on economic efficiency. I find that the
down rule is inefficient unless there is large asymmetry in the inconvenience costs of shifting the
position of the toilet seat across genders. I show that the “selfish” or the “status quo” rule that
leaves the toilet seat in the position used dominates the down rule in a wide range of parameter
spaces including the case where the inconvenience costs are the same. The intuition for this
result is easy to understand. Imagine a situation in which the aggregate frequency of toilet usage
is the same across genders, that is, the probability that any visitor will be male is 1//2. With the
down rule, each male visit is associated with lifting the toilet seat up before use and lowering it
down after use, with the inconvenience costs being incurred twice. With the selfish rule, in
contrast, the inconvenience costs are incurred once and only when the previous visitor is a
member of different gender. The worst case under the selfish rule would occur when the sex of
the toilet visitor strictly alternates in each usage. Even in this case, the total inconvenience costs
would be the same as those under the down rule if the costs are symmetric. If there is any
possibility that consecutive users are from the same gender, the selfish rule strictly dominates the
down rule because it keeps the option value of not incurring any inconvenience costs in such an
event. This logic can be extended to the case of asymmetric aggregate frequency of toilet usage
across genders. The remainder of the paper is organized in the following way. In Section II, I
compare three plausible rules for the toilet seat position—up, down, and selfish—on an
efficiency criterion. I show that the selfish rule always dominates the other two if the
inconvenience costs of changing the toilet seat position are the same across genders. In Section
III, I characterize the optimal rule for the toilet seat position. It turns out that the selfish rule is
the most efficient rule in a wide range of parameter spaces. I also derive the condition that the
down rule can be the most efficient one when the inconvenience costs are asymmetric. Section
IV extends the analysis to the case where the inconvenience costs are heterogeneous even within
the same gender. Section V contains concluding remarks. II. THE BASIC MODEL I consider
the usage of a toilet that is shared by members of the opposite sex. Assume that the proportion of
male to all users of a certain toilet is given by α. Let me assume the frequency of using a toilet by
male and female is the same without loss of generality. If one gender uses the toilet more often,
this asymmetry can be reflected in α. Thus, the parameter α represents the relative aggregate
frequency of male using the toilet.2 I analyze an infinite horizon discrete time framework where
the toilet is used once in each period. The discount factor is given by δ. With the assumption
about the relative frequency of the toilet usage by each gender, the probability that the user is
male in each period is given by α. 3 The inconvenience cost of lowering the toilet seat for
women is given by cf . The corresponding cost of lifting the toilet seat for men is given by cm.
Even though I use the term inconvenience costs, cf and cm can encompass other types of costs
such as “unwittingly placing one’s bottom directly on the porcelain” and risk of falling in by
sitting down without looking when the seat is up or “leaving sprinkles on the seat” when it is
down, respectively. My goal in this section is to compare the expected aggregate inconvenience
costs of three rules—down, up, and selfish—concerning the position of the toilet seat. In this
comparative analysis, I abstract from other considerations such as being considerate to members
of the opposite sex, aesthetic aspects, the wear costs of the seat hinge, etc. A. The Down
(Female-Friendly) Rule This is a rule that leaves the position of the seat down after one is done
with the bathroom task. In particular, this rule implies that each visit by a male member will be
associated with the inconvenience costs of 2 cm, whereas female members will incur no costs. 2.
The relative frequency of men going “number 1” versus “number 2” can be also incorporated in
the parameter α. 3. Equivalently, I could envision a continuous time model in which the arrival
rate is given by a Possion process with the arrival rate being a function of the number of total
users. The probability that a particular arrival is male is given by α. I derive essentially the same
results with this continuous model. CHOI: A MALE ECONOMIST’S MANIFESTO ON THE
TOILET SEAT ETIQUETTE 305 Let V DOWN m and V DOWN f denote the value functions
with the down rule when the particular user in the current period is male and female,
respectively. Then, these value functions satisfy the following recursive relationships. V DOWN
m = −2cm + δ αV DOWN (1) m + (1 − α)V DOWN f V DOWN f = δ αV DOWN m + (1 − α)V
DOWN f (2) By solving these two equations, we can get V DOWN m = −
1 − δα 1 − δ (3) (2cm) V DOWN f = − δα 1 − δ (4) (2cm) Because the probability of a particular
arrival being male is α, the value function associated with the down rule is: V DOWN = αV
DOWN m + (1 − α)V DOWN f (5) = − α 1 − δ (2 cm) B. The Up (Male-Friendly) Rule This is a
rule that leaves the position of the seat up after one is done with the bathroom task. In this case,
all the inconvenience costs are incurred by females. The case is a mirror image of the down rule
and the value function of this rule can be derived in an analogous way. Let V UP m and V UP f
denote the value functions when the particular user is male and female, respectively. Then, these
value functions satisfy the following relationships. V UP m = δ αV UP m + (1 − α)V UP f (6) V
UP (7) f = − 2cf + δ αV DOWN m + (1 − α)V UP f By solving these two equations, I can derive
V UP m = −δ(1 − α) 1 − δ (8) (2cf ) V UP f = −
1 − δ(1 − α) 1 − δ (9) (2cf ) Because the probability that a particular arrival is male is α, the
value function associated with the down rule is: V UP = αV UP m + (1 − α)V UP f (10) = −(1 −
α) 1 − δ (2cf ) A comparison of Equations (5) and (10) yields the following proposition.
PROPOSITION 1. The down rule is more effi- cient than the up rule if and only if cf cm > α 1−α
. C. The Selfish (Status Quo) Rule This is a rule that leaves the position of the seat as it was used.
Let V SQ m and V SQ f denote the value functions when the particular user is male and female,
respectively, under the selfish rule. Then, these value functions satisfy the following
relationships. V SQ (11) m = − (1 − α)cm + δ αV SQ m + (1 − α)V SQ f V UP f = −αcf + δ αV
SQ m + (1 − α)V SQ f (12) By solving these two equations, I get V SQ m = − (1 − α)(1 − δ(1 −
α)) 1 − δ cm (13) + δα(1 − α) 1 − δ cf V SQ f = − δα(1 − α) 1 − δ cm + α(1 − δα) 1 − δ cf (14)
Because the probability that a particular arrival is male is α, the value function associated with
the down rule is: V SQ = αV SQ m + (1 − α)V SQ f (15) = −α(1 − α) 1 − δ (cm + cf )
Comparisons of Equations (5), (10), and (15) give me the following result. See also Figure 1.
PROPOSITION 2. If the inconvenience costs are the same across genders (cm = cf ), the selfish
rule do