Why do humans smear their poop sometimes?
May 9, 2009 5:04 PM   Subscribe

Why do young children, demented old people and the like smear their poop?

I don't know why I was wondering about this, but I was, so I asked my psychologist/neurophysiologist father, but he didn't know.

We agreed that it has to be something pretty innate because of the state of humans who usually seem to do it. He also mentioned that children usually do it once or so. Is this just because the parent would typically make a big deal about it? If not for cultural pressure, would poop smearing be a pastime we all enjoy?

Wild speculation and actual references welcome.
posted by cmoj to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In child services, we look at kids over about 5 or 6 with feces issues with extreme concern, because it's a huge indicator of sexual abuse.

And, if you've never worked with the general public, you'd be very upset to find out just how many people really do have feces issues. I was a lifeguard for a long long time, and it never ceased to amaze me the crazy things people will do with poop.
posted by TomMelee at 5:26 PM on May 9, 2009

If you haven't learned yet (or have forgotten) that poop is gross, it's probably kind of fun to play with. Why do kids like play-do or cookie dough or fingerpaint? If you don't know that poop is much grosser than those things, then poop is just another play-do, cookie dough, fingerpaint thing that you can stick your hands in and squish.

(I am sufficiently old/young that typing that answer really grossed me out).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:28 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Finger painting is a great tactile and sensual pleasure. If you are too young or too deluded to know that shit is disgusting, why wouldn't use this easily available material your body produces for free?

I can tell you that most parents express their displeasure at shit-smearing very strongly. If you had to clean it up, you'd try and make sure it didn't happen again too.

Re cultural pressure - I don't know if there is a human culture where actual smearing around of shit is ok, but gorillas are known to foul their own sleeping areas and then lie in it. Schaller speculates that this is because their poo is solid and doesn't stick to their hair.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:28 PM on May 9, 2009

Well, poop contains microorganisms.

They'd like to be smeared around in order to propagate, and they somehow make us do it when we're most vulnerable to their influence (when we are the least inhibited, possibly).

I'd guess they accomplish this by producing antigens which cause us to develop antibodies which in turn cause the requisite poop smearing neurons to fire in our brains.
posted by jamjam at 5:32 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can see how people who don't know better like to squish things (although the thought of it is making me feel sick to my stomach now), but can't they smell the horribleness coming from it???
posted by KateHasQuestions at 5:39 PM on May 9, 2009

My guess is that it's because it's there, and because it comes from their body, the shit-smearer views it as something they own. There might be some vestiges of territory marking, too, but this is just speculation.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:01 PM on May 9, 2009

anal phase: pleasure in creating something of his or her own.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 6:06 PM on May 9, 2009

what the f*ck jam jam? references please. or see you on the delete side.
posted by Frasermoo at 6:08 PM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

("Poop smearing neurons"?)

I mean, actually, it's not totally crazy. I wonder if jamjam was inspired by toxoplasmosis, which is spread in cat shit and which causes infected rats to lose their fear of cats. There's definitely precedent for the idea that microbes cause behavioral changes in their hosts. I'm just not sure it should be our first explanation for what's going on in the absence of other evidence.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:23 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hereby second the poop-smearing neurons theory. The question did ask for "Wild speculation", after all.
posted by rokusan at 6:27 PM on May 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


When I was in college (early 70's), I worked at a psych hospital... We had this patient named Chester (about 80 years old, senile as heck)... he would get a bit weird at times and was put into the "isolation room". I went to check him once to find the walls smeared with poop... I asked Chester "WTF"... his response... "When you gotta go, you gotta go"...

perhaps it is as simple as that...
posted by HuronBob at 6:30 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky describes a number of examples of parasites or infectious microbes that modify behavior in a Scientific American review...

I first encountered this idea while working on my book Parasite Rex. I was investigating the remarkable ability parasites have to manipulate the behavior of ....

posted by jamjam at 6:40 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have noticed that babies and demented people don't react to "bad smells" as strongly as most people do. If the smell doesn't bother you, poo is just free play-doh.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:44 PM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

When all you have is poop ...
posted by zippy at 7:10 PM on May 9, 2009

(make lemonade?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:44 PM on May 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding TomMelee. In social services we consider it an indicator of likely sexual abuse when any kid older than 5 or so smears poop (and you'd be amazed how many behaviorally challenged kids with abuse histories smear poop. It freakin sucks.)

Other than that, I'm sure little kids (or developmentally disabled folks) who do it are in the anal phase of development and that folks who are senile are just revisiting that anal phase as a part of development regression.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:23 PM on May 9, 2009

When I was in high school, there was someone known as the 'Mad Pooper' who would smear shit (either his own or an outsider's) all over the stalls, mirrors, door handles, sinks, et cetera in the restroom. This went on for a few weeks and the bathroom passes went into lockdown mode.

Anyways, they finally caught him. He was this normal (seeming) guy that was into tech theater. I hypothesize that he used shit because it was easy to produce, and it causes a revulsion the likes of which is hard to beat.

So for those who are more in control of their actions, shit-smearing can be used as the ultimate antisocial stunt.
posted by amicamentis at 9:14 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

When life gives you lemons...
posted by hermitosis at 9:42 PM on May 9, 2009

Boy, you can't even skip four comments when you read an askme thread.

Really though, I agree that it's probably just a fun tactile/visual thing. Suddenly one just finds oneself with a preponderance of raw material and starts exploring. It probably helps that such behavior gets a satisfyingly dramatic reaction from others.
posted by hermitosis at 9:46 PM on May 9, 2009

Really I don't think many children do smear poop. I've got two kids and ten nieces and nephews, and I've never seen any of them do that. Perhaps the rare times it happens people are so shocked they talk about it a lot?
posted by communicator at 1:13 AM on May 10, 2009

If you don't know it's shit, it's a lot of fun! Like an automatic Play-doh/Silly Putty/Finger paint factory! Right there in your pants!
posted by Ookseer at 1:47 AM on May 10, 2009

It's possible that people like to gross out other people (this does not include very young ones who are probably just going for the tactile thing - mmm warm and smeary. Also, as mentioned above, very little ones don't seem to have a highly defined sense of smell) in order to make a mark (as it were) so if they want to have people notice them or their actions (I've seen shit smeared on the walls of public toilets way too often and who's looking at you when you're in a cubicle all by yourself?) what better way to do it than with shit, right? It stinks and its texture is extremely unpleasant.

I think it's often very much an attention thing. Look at me, I'm covered/have covered stuff in shit! Even if no-one ever knows who was responsible, they will always remember the time they discovered that horrible thing. The person who did that probably knows that. Their shit will be remembered, even if they aren't.
posted by h00py at 4:03 AM on May 10, 2009

I think there is a primal fascination with the stinky mess that comes out of our assholes. Everyone tells you it's gross, stresses the importance of depositing it in the toilet and flushing it, and for the feeble-minded I think there is a kind of weird joy in smearing and playing with this forbidden substance.

Anyways, they finally caught him. He was this normal (seeming) guy that was into tech theater. I hypothesize that he used shit because it was easy to produce, and it causes a revulsion the likes of which is hard to beat.

Damn, that's something I bet people will still remember at the twentieth reunion. That would be hard to live down.
posted by jayder at 7:39 AM on May 10, 2009

Seconding TomMelee. In social services we consider it an indicator of likely sexual abuse when any kid older than 5 or so smears poop (and you'd be amazed how many behaviorally challenged kids with abuse histories smear poop. It freakin sucks.)

Sorry to add to the mystery, but is it known -- or do social workers have any guess -- why kids develop this behavior in response to sexual abuse in particular? Is it a gender-specific behavior?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:01 AM on May 10, 2009

No, foxy-hedgehog, I don't know why this behavior appears in response to sexual abuse. A child psychologist might have some idea. All I can do is hazard a guess. My initial thought is that it's an attempt to avoid contact with others. Most behavior is an attempt to either obtain or avoid something. So the subconscious impulse might be, "I'm afraid you're going to get too close, and if I do this really gross, smelly thing -- you'll realize that it's best to avoid contact with me (or rather, you'll realize I'm just too gross and not worth your time or effort)." That's just a guess though - I don't really know why. In my experience it's a really difficult behavior to modify. Of course, if you can't identify the function of the behavior - you're unlikely to modify it successfully, so that's probably why I have trouble with it.

I'm interested in hearing any other thoughts regarding the function of poop smearing as a behavioral response to sexual abuse. So if there are any mefite clinicians on board today - chime in!
posted by dchrssyr at 10:03 AM on May 10, 2009

Foxy, I worry that we derail a little bit, but I'll try to add to dchssyr's thoughts.

Individuals who experience the kind of sexual abuse we're talking about have some fairly interesting traits about how they develop cognitively and physically, obviously there are about a zillion variables at play there though. Some stop, or some get stuck at a certain phase. I've known a lot of sexually abused youths who never are able to see the object-permenance perspective that life continues when they're not around. Some revert to controlling whatever they can control---whether it's sleep or evacuation or whatever. Some, because they were taught that their bodies were objects of pleasure, simply don't see the perspective that bodily waste is waste. Many, many of them had generally fail parents who just never taught them about using the toilet or toilet paper or personal hygiene. I mean, it follows that in a household where sexual abuse of a 0-5 year old is taking place that perhaps development isn't high on the caregivers list.

Total speculation though, I've personally seen (in my opinion) all of those reasons, but I'm sure there are a gazillion more.
posted by TomMelee at 11:14 AM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Really interesting. I'm only slight disturbed that I'm so curious about this now.

TomMelee, I'm also very gratified that the term "fail parents" can now be used with perfect clarity in a serious discussion.
posted by cmoj at 12:07 PM on May 10, 2009

I know a fail parent who likes to tell stories about how his kids will hide poo under couch cushions, in the VCR, etc etc, as if that sort of behavior isn't a cause for alarm.
posted by nomisxid at 12:02 PM on May 11, 2009

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