How Would a Scientist Convince You to Wash Your Hands?

Elad Simchayoff

And What Should It Teach Us About Public Health Messages?

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Back When Handwashing was Less of a Thing

Some of you are probably old enough to remember the time when washing our hands wasn’t a heroic act with the capabilities of saving the human race. Don’t get me wrong, personal hygiene was always important. However, there was a time in which handwashing wasn’t a subject of videosor weird demonstrations from world leaders. In what now seems like ancient times, the act of washing one’s hands was solely between the person, the sink, and god almighty.

Back then, a few researchers conducted experiments to answer what is the most useful method to motivate people to wash their hands. Their findings could teach us quite a bit.

Experiment 1 —Who’s the Subject?

This experiment was conducted in a hospital and was aimed at checking the medical staff’s reaction to different focused messages. The researchers placed 3 different signs next to hand-sanitizing stations and inside restrooms.

  1. A personal consequence message: “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.”
  2. A patient consequence message: “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.”
  3. A neutral message (used for a control group): “Gel in, wash out.”

For 2 weeks the amount of soap and the amount of hand-sanitizing gel were measured and compared. Later, for an additional 2 weeks, independent health care professionals were covertly observing the staff’s hygiene routine.

In both methods (measurement and observation) the results were clear. Witnessing the ‘patient consequence message’ drastically raised the staff’s hygiene. People tend to be overconfident regarding their personal strength and immunity. When the medical staff was faced with the potential consequence their action (or lack of) could have on others, they washed their hands much more.

All it took was to change one word.

Experiment 2 — Watch Your Tone

This experiment was held in a university. This time, researchers were trying to identify how different tones might motivate students to wash their hands. 4 different signs were placed in restrooms.

  1. An assertive-praising message: “You are doing a lot for your health. You must do more! Wash your hands with soap — always!”
  2. An assertive-scolding message: “You are not doing enough for your health. You must do more! Wash your hands with soap — always!”
  3. A non-assertive-praising message: “You are doing a lot for your health. You can do more. You can wash your hands with soap — always.”
  4. A non-assertive-scolding message: “You are not doing enough for your health. You can do more. You can wash your hands with soap — always.”

For 5 days, the amount of soap in the restrooms’ bottles was measured and compared to a period of usage without signs in place. Again, the results were clear. The assertive-praising message and the non-assertive-scolding message elicited a significantly higher soap usage.

The researchers conclude that merely praising or scolding is not enough to promote the desired behavior. The tone matters no less than the content. In order to get optimal results - praise assertively, or scold softly.

Public Health Message Today

Getting people to change their behavior, when they are not aware that anybody is watching, is a difficult task. These experiments highlight some important keys to consider when promoting messages of public health (or in any other subject for that matter).

  • Carefully craft your message. Every word is significant.
  • Think about how you say and not just what you say.
  • Sometimes, people will be better motivated by thinking of others, and not of themselves.

And yet, not everyone follows these proven methods. The main focus on guidelines is still on how to protect yourself. Possible consequences to others, especially those most vulnerable, should take a far bigger part of every campaign.

Not everyone will listen, not everyone washed their hands in the experiments mentioned. And yet, if those methods worked better than others back when washing hands was not a matter of national urgency, it might be worth using them now, when public health is more important than ever.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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I love writing about what I love. Journalist. Always curious. Israeli born, London based. Father, Husband, and a dog person.

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