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Washing Hands May Help to Foster Fresh Ideas

Washing Hands May Help to Foster Fresh Ideas

New research suggests that the metaphorical washing one’s hands of an action or belief may actually have a more literal basis.

Investigators at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management discovered the physicality of cleaning one’s hands shifts goal pursuit, making prior goals less important and subsequent goals more important.

In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers used a series of experiments to explain the mental process.

In the first, investigators focused participants’ attention to particular goals through word games or a short survey, a process called “priming.” The participants were then asked to either merely evaluate or actually use a hand wipe.

Those who were asked to use the wipe became less likely to think of the previously primed goal, less likely to make behavioral choices consistent with it, and less likely to find it important.

Furthermore, their focus was more easily reoriented towards a subsequently primed goal.

“For people who were primed with a health goal, for example, using the hand wipe reduced their subsequent tendency to behave in a healthy manner — they were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over a granola bar,” said researcher Ping Dong, a Ph.D. student in marketing.

Previous work has already shown that physical cleansing reduces the impact of previous psychological experiences, such as guilt arising from immoral behavior.

The current research explains the underlying mental process: cleansing embodies a psychological procedure of separation.

Wiping away dirt serves as a physical proxy for mentally separating ideas that linger from previous experience, hence preparing a “clean slate” for focusing on new ones.

This research examined cleansing’s short-term rather than long-term impact on goal pursuit, Dong said.

While it may be premature to suggest that people intent on achieving goals should significantly alter their personal hygiene routines, the findings do suggest that when it comes to finding practical tricks for redirecting one’s thinking away from old pursuits, an antiseptic wipe may come in handy.

Source: University of Toronto

Washing Hands May Help to Foster Fresh Ideas

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Washing Hands May Help to Foster Fresh Ideas. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 Jun 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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