The Public Restroom Handwashing/Economy Connection

Is there a heretofore-unexamined connection between male handwashing trends in public restrooms and the U.S. economy? An article in this morning’s WSJ got me thinking about the subject.

The article described some of the nifty stuff entrepreneurs are doing to make it easier to exit public restrooms without touching the door handle. And that got me mentally mulling why we’re currently so fixated on the handwashing subject, what with it hardly being news that public restroom door handles are like medieval street gutters.

And then it came to me: The economy is weakening. Maybe there  is an inverse relationship between handwashing and the economy: The weaker the economy, the more nervous people are about missing time at work, so the more they wash their hands in public restrooms. Okay, it’s a stretch, but it’s Friday, so let’s try it anyway.

I looked at a study from the American Society of Microbiology where it did hand-washing checks in public restrooms in major U.S. cities in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Just to keep things comparable, I limited myself to one city — New York — and one location — Grand Central Station. Did the data show an inverse relationship, as posited, between male handwashing in public restrooms and GDP growth?

Here it is:


Whoa, as you can see, male hand-washing rises and falls at New York’s Grand Central Station inversely correlated with U.S. GDP growth. Where’s Robert Shiller when you need him? We need a new tradable index.


  1. is it me, or are we reaching the outside boundary of a standard deviation on that chart?

  2. Standard deviation? We are reaching beyond the outside boundary of sense, reason and defensibility — but it’s Friday.

  3. Suffice it to say that the economy is headed into the commode

  4. There is a phenomenon loosely called “the Macbeth effect”. Psychologists have studied this a bit, and economists are getting interested.
    It turns out that you are less likely to trust someone if you can tell that they’ve recently washed their hands; like Macbeth, they may have been trying to wash off their guilt.
    Perhaps people wash more when the economy is down to try and remove any taint of the broader economy from their more idiosyncratic skills?

  5. Here’s what I want to know: What percentage of men wash their hands when there is no one else in the bathroom vs. when there is another person in the bathroom?

  6. Ok, so this is kinda fun. I’m curious how many of these men use soap vs. just water. I’m also confused with the chart itself. Are you saying that if 5% of men are in the non-washing category that 95% wash their hands? I’m not buying it. Still, a fun little tidbit.