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Everybody is Watching. Better Wash Your Hands!

Patrick Boshell
October 11, 2016


Admit it.  Have you ever behaved a certain way because you knew someone was watching?  Maybe you wanted to impress someone or maybe you just didn’t want to be embarrassed.


Do you slow down when driving if you see a police car?  Do you push a little harder at the gym to try and keep up with the regulars? Did you maybe make that purchase because of the assertive salesperson? Or maybe, you stopped and washed your hands after using the bathroom because another person was doing the same thing?  Whatever the reason, social influence is a very powerful motivator - it often works well to get people to behave a certain way.


Most people eat a meal or snack at a restaurant 5-6 times per week? When was the last time you washed or sanitized your hands before eating?  Since pathogens are invisible, most people don’t think about the germs on their hands and the connection it makes to illness.  Sure we’ve heard the horror stories about foodborne illness, but that’s not going to happen to us right?


Did you know that infectious diseases are the third leading cause of death in the United States and unclean hands spread many of the contagions?  Experts agree that hand hygiene is the most effective way to reduce the spread of infections. While 96% of people say they wash their hands – the actual percentage is much lower.  But what if the rules were different.  What if social pressure was used strategically to get people to wash their hands?


Using Social Psychology to Improve Hand Hygiene Compliance


According to a new research study, leveraging the social aspects of hand hygiene may be the future of getting people to wash their hands before they eat in public.  The idea behind the report published by a professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield is based on the concept that prevention is the cheapest form of healthcare.  The study proposes how restaurants in the US could help to reduce the healthcare burden of infectious diseases by reforming existing hand washing arrangements and moving them outside the washroom – where patrons could see each other cleaning their hands. 


Sounds radical right? We’ll not really. The effects of social psychology have been recognized since the 1950’s and are known as the Hawthorne effect.  The theory is simple.  People alter their behaviour when they know they are being watched.  In some cases, as an example, a hospital might be manually observing a high rate of hand hygiene compliance, but later it drops because no one is paying attention anymore.  But what if the same social principals were applied to food hygiene – if diners knew they were being watched, would they be more likely to wash their hands before eating? 


Download Free Hand Washing Posters


The pro-hygiene recommendations in the study would involve a public health reform for American restaurants and possibly all public settings in the future. The novel idea, based on social behaviour is simple – publicize hand washing and take advantage of social influence.  To further help elicit the right behaviours; the peer pressure approach would be reinforced with supporting information such as posters and priming.  How would you react if the wait staff reminded you to wash your hands?


It’s an interesting concept that draws on the idea that prevention is the cheapest form of healthcare.  Max Planck (1936), the Nobel Prize-winning physicist is referenced in the study and says,  “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting opponents.  What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning.”


This unique idea is grounded in behavioural research and it may be worth more consideration - especially in light of rising healthcare costs.  What do you think?  Is our status quo good enough or do we need more innovative thinking to help persuade the masses to wash their hands and help reduce our healthcare burden? 





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