A playful exhibition at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a popular hands-on science museum, picks up on the power of disgust. A working drinking fountain is installed on a toilet, such that the fountain’s runoff water falls into the toilet’s bowl, and visitors are encouraged to drink from it. The adjacent sign reads,
“A Sip of Conflict: The water in this drinking fountain is perfectly clean, and the toilet has never been used. So why do people often hesitate before taking a drink? Strong emotional associations with objects or people can make it difficult to act objectively around them.”
Everyone hesitates, and most people eventually, laughingly, drink from the fountain, feeling a bit disgusted. According to evolutionary psychologist Joshua Rottman, disgust is a uniquely human emotion that likely evolved to help people living in groups avoid ingesting pathogens. As picked up on by the toilet drinking fountain, feelings of disgust often kick in with associations of fecal matter, other peoples’ bodies, animals that seem “dirty,” and other potential sources of pathogens.
The toilet drinking fountain elicits explicit feelings of disgust. But many people express disgust on the topic of other non-toilet drinking fountains, often lacking the exact language to articulate why they find them unappealing. One possible explanation may have to do with their typical placement. Often, drinking fountains are only located near restrooms. While this makes sense from a building economy perspective, using “wet walls” of restroom plumbing on either side of the wall, it may associate drinking fountains with sanitation in users minds. Other times, drinking fountains are clustered efficiently with other park furniture – especially trash cans. Drinking fountains offering supposedly fresh clean water do not seem more clean when associated with bathrooms and trash cans. In public spaces, restrooms are often supremely smelly and filthy, and trash cans are often overflowing and covered in flies. By implication, drinking fountains located near these objects will be seen with suspicion, and assumed to be dirtier than they might actually be.
Isn’t it likely that looser associations, such as drinking fountains near bathrooms and trash cans, also pick up on these feelings of disgust at a smaller and less conscious scale? And in these instances, there usually isn’t a sign assuring users that the water is “perfectly clean.” These fountains usually do not appear to have conscious care. A professor in architecture school once told my class that the sign of a good building is not needing to ask where the bathrooms are. Legibility of space is a powerful idea, and indeed, in most public buildings, drinking fountains can be reliably found by bathrooms, utilizing the necessary water pipes from the bathrooms. This cost saving measure, however, doesn’t ask whether this is really the best place for them. Locating drinking fountains away from bathrooms and trash cans may make them more appealing and more likely to be used by more people.