The Toilet Paper Orientation Dilemma

By Teun Grondman

It is one of the most heavily-debated dilemmas in modern age. Almost everybody has an opinion about it, and they are willing to defend it if needed. No, we are not talking about religion, politics or social issues — this problem transcends all of those petty things. Of course, we’re talking about the Toilet Paper Orientation Duality, which I’ll abbreviate to TPOD for convenience (pronounced as Tea Pot). How do you hang your toilet roll, Over or Under?

One merely has to google Toilet Paper Orientation and they will find almost half a million webpages mentioning the subject. Wikipedia spends over 5000 words on it, and references literally hundreds of sources. One Facebook page has over 16,000 likes and there is even an active Facebook group called ‘People That Pull Their Toilet Paper Under Are Retarded

To a cultural outsider, it all might seem incredibly insignificant on a first glance. However, the strong preferences are understandable and explainable when taking a more in-depth look at the issue. I think there are two main reasons why the TPOD battleground is so strongly polarized.

Reason 1: It’s a culture thing

People grow up using toilet paper. Excluding a person’s first and last three years of their life, they will find themselves using toilet paper literally every single day. And habits that people develop from early childhood will become strongly rooted in one’s brain, to the point that it feels utterly appalling to change them (examples: religious beliefs, the colour of Zwarte Piet).

People growing up in an ‘over/under-orientation household’ will most likely adopt those dogmas and value them as ‘the one true way’. When asked why they choose one orientation over another, they might answer something like “It is just how it should be, y’know?”

Reason 2: It’s a private thing

A lot of beliefs are regionally concentrated. In the Netherlands, almost everyone eats the same way, adheres to the same Judeo-Christian ethical value system and listens to the same Anglosphere music. This is regional homogeneity is caused by the diffusion of cultural values trough upbringing, mass media, language, education and socialization.

But there is no media, education or socialization based on toilet paper orientation. The issue remains a solely private thing and everyone develops their own opinions with minimal interference or diffusion from the outside world. Therefore, two very similar people can still have very different opinions about toilet paper!

The TPOD is not related to culture, race, religion or other sensitive subjects, but everyone has an opinion about it. This makes it a nice and seemingly harmless subject to discuss and research. It relates to nothing in particular and that’s why it fascinates me!

Practical arguments

Until now, the Over and Under orientation were discussed as being completely equivalent to each other. However, there are of course some practical differences which might cause one to prefer Over over Under or Under over Over.

Four Reasons Why Over > Under

  • It’s easier to locate the loose end.
  • You won’t accidentally scrape your hand across the wall when gripping the paper, so you’ll avoid nasty wall-germs.
  • Toilet paper manufacturers prefer Over, so paper with patterns or drawings will be displayed the right way.
  • In hotels, the end of a roll can be folded a certain way to indicate that the room has been cleaned.

Four Reasons why Under > Over

  • The loose end hangs neatly near the wall and might look more visually appealing.
  • Little kids or pets can’t as easily unroll the complete toilet roll by rotating it towards them.
  • It’s easier to roll up excess toilet paper.
  • Though debated, one-handed tearing is found to be easier.
Pets will mess up everything.

There isn’t a consensus on which orientation is the most paper efficient. There have been several, but contradictory studies, so not much can be said about that.

As you can see, there are plenty of pros and cons for either case. But none of these reasons are convincing enough; otherwise there wouldn’t still be a debate going on. So instead of finding out which one is better, we’ll try to find out who chooses which.

Numerous studies and surveys have been performed in the past, correlating the roll preference to age, gender, political ideology and socioeconomic status. Those correlations have been found, though they’re not very strong. But all of the surveys found that the Over orientation is preferred more, with a majority ranging from 53% to 73%. There have not been found significant correlations with age or gender.

However, correlations with other personal qualities have been found. Rich people and politically progressive people are more likely to prefer Over. There are suggestions from psychologists that socially extravert people might also prefer Over, but there are no conclusive results to back those claims.

Keep in mind that these are correlations, not causations! It is possible that one causes the other, or vice versa, or that both are caused by a third factor, or that any correlation is just coincidence.

The TPOD on the University of Twente

Of course, I wasn’t satisfied with all these previous results. None of the surveys were conducted in the Netherlands! Are there really no correlations with age or gender? And what is the deal with extra/introvertness?

So I did my own little survey, conducted amongst people from the University of Twente! I made a simple poll in Google Docs with four, very basic questions:

  1. Over or Under?
  2. Are you Male or Female?
  3. How extraverted do you consider yourself (1–7)?
  4. What’s your age?

I’ve deliberately kept the question about extravertness very open to interpretation. What even is extraversion, and how reliable is rating yourself? It is so difficult to answer these questions that I just disregarded them. Judging yourself is a straightforward method to still get some insight (though perhaps not highly accurate or scientific).

I posted a link to the group ‘University of Twente — Marketplace’, a group where students usually sell stuff to each other. Since this group has almost 8000 members, most likely involved at the uni, I consider it a decent way to reach lots of relevant people.

The response was quite overwhelming. The first 100 results arrived within 25 minutes. Within an hour there were 212, after 24 hours that number had grown to 700. Finally, the responses slowly died out and the final result was a staggering number of 778 people who participated! This sample size comes very close to the amounts of other official studies, and it is large enough to be very representative! Meanwhile, the Facebook post itself had garnered 58 likes and over 40 excited comments.

Number Crunching

The results were put in an Excel file and I performed quite a lot of data analysis on them. Here are some results. In the figures, Blue implies Over and Red is Under.

The answers given to the four questions.

We can extract a lot of interesting data! Overall, the majority of Over is as expected, and even quite strong compared to other studies. 86.38% chose Over and only 6.30% voted Under. The rest chose Don’t Care (D/C). We can also examine the demographics of the survey. As you can see in the tables, there are more males than females (61% vs. 39%) and the average extraversion is 3.9 on a scale from 1–7, very close to the middle. The average age is 24 years and 3 months, and the most common age is 21.

Average properties of Overers, Underers and ‘Don’t Carers’
Graphical representation of TPOD choices per group

Interestingly, there are correlations, especially with age and gender! These are some of the findings:

  • People above 30 prefer Under almost twice as often as people below 20.
  • Young people tend to not care, in comparison to older people.
  • Males are way more likely to fill in D/C than females: out of the “don’t carers”, 71% is male.
  • Females are more likely to choose the Under orientation than males: though there are significantly more males than females in the overall group, the gender ratio amongst ‘Underers’ is almost equal.
  • Extraverts (5–7) are more likely to fill in D/C, whereas introverts (1–3) most often do choose Over or Under.
  • The “don’t carers” are overall the most extravert.
  • Those who choose Under are marginally more introvert than those who choose Over.

Overall Conclusion

The results are very interesting! Several findings make a lot of sense and surprisingly there are lots of correlations regarding age and gender. Indeed, suggestions that extraverts prefer Over do have some substance.

My personal choice? I’m a fervent Under person. I will change the roll when it’s the wrong way around. I have no practical reason why, though! I like how it looks. It is just how it should be, y’know?

…or it is the other way around.

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared in ATtentie 9–2, magazine of study association Astatine.