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The social psychology of flatulence… do you subconsciously fart more when you’re alone?

It may be something you’ve noticed and maybe it’s not… but it’s an important scientific question. Why do we seem to fart more when we’re alone or in agreeable company than when we’re in public? Sometimes when we’re in public— in an elevator, at work, on a subway train— we consciously hold it in, but sometimes it seems like we just fart less. Is that true?


Fortunately, in 1980, Dr. LG Lippman wrote a scientific paper on the topic entitled “Toward a social psychology of flatulence: The interpersonal regulation of natural gas” that was published in the journal Psychology.

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.

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