When feeling a strong urge to urinate humans tend to walk around when e.g. waiting for the current bathroom occupant to get out. Why is that?


This is what we call a displacement behaviour (or displacement activity, the term used by Konrad Lorenz - see below). Funnily enough, that's exactly the same general mechanism involved in the behaviour described in my previous answer here at Bio SE.

In short, a displacement behaviour is a behaviour that occurs when the animal (human beings are animals, of course) faces itself in a situation of conflict: you want to urinate, but you are inside a train, or in a concert, or in the theatre during the best moment of that movie, or the bathroom line is simply too huge.

In that moment, you realize that you need to hold it a bit longer. That's when you start your displacement behaviour.

When people need to hold a very strong impulse to urinate, the most common movements/behaviours are:

  • stamping the feet
  • squirming
  • walking, as you said
  • humming

Therefore, walking is just one among several behaviours we show when we need to urinate but we can't: there is nothing special with walking in this situation.

Another common displacement behaviours that humans show in other situations are scratching the head, rubbing hands, drumming the fingers or biting the nails.

Konrad Lorenz explains displacement behaviours in his The foundations of Ethology:

When two conflicting motor patterns are activated simultaneously, it can happen that the organism performs a third pattern which may belong to an altogether different system. This curious effect was first described in avocets, Recurvirostra avisetta, by G. F. Makkink, the Dutch ornithologist who called the movements thus elicited "sparkling-over" activities (Über-sprungbewegungen). The accepted English translation is "displacement activities". Although "displacement" means something entirely different in the psychoanalytical literature, this term will be used here.

Further down, giving examples of displacement behaviours in human beings, he says:

Locomotion, too, is often disinhibited in conflict situations; some people tend to walk restlessly to and fro while delivering a speech, and so on.


  • $\begingroup$ So you are saying it's all in the head and there is nothing really happening in the bladder or surrounding muscles/organs to suppress the urge? $\endgroup$ – problemofficer Jul 1 '17 at 6:06
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yes, that's what I'm saying. For instance, I don't walk, what I do is swinging from side to side... and also humming, if my bladder is really full. $\endgroup$ – user24284 Jul 1 '17 at 6:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Mockingbird Yes, that may be the case. When Lorenz described this behaviour he suggested that this could relieve the tension caused by competing urges. However, that doesn't necessary mean that it reduces one of the urges: it reduces the tension between them (the necessity to pee vs the necessity to hold it). In my personal experience all I can say is that it helps me to cope with the urge to urinate. $\endgroup$ – user24284 Jul 1 '17 at 8:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by this? If you're talking about OP's question, it's worth mentioning that Lorenz won the Nobel Prize. If you're talking about your question here in the comments, I'd have to do some research. $\endgroup$ – user24284 Jul 1 '17 at 10:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Mockingbird That being the case, I'd have to do some more research, as I said. But I believe that the displacement activity doesn't suppress the need to urinate. $\endgroup$ – user24284 Jul 3 '17 at 12:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.