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