How to Trick People into Being Less Disgusting

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I know this is going to be hard to hear, so brace yourselves: most of y’all are disgusting. I mean, absolutely disgusting. And I say that as a person with a fairly cavalier attitude towards hygiene. Like, I wash my hair once a week, tops. But my hands? I wash my hands all the time. I wash them before I make or eat food, I wash them after I take the dog out for a walk, and most importantly, I wash them after I use the toilet. Even if there’s no running water, I have a bottle of sanitizer. If you don’t wash your hands at least after you use the bathroom, I will judge you. And please don’t ever touch me.

Many of you right now are thinking, “I agree! Washing your hands after using the toilet is important!” I’d say about 92% of you would think that, but unfortunately research shows that only about 66% of you say that you wash your hands every time. That’s right, that’s not even an observational study: 34% of people admitted they don’t wash their hands every time they use the toilet.

To make matters worse, 95% of you don’t wash your hands properly, meaning for at least 15 seconds, and that does come from an observational study. That same study found that half of all men didn’t even use soap.

It’s a big deal, because teaching communities to wash their hands reduces the spread of diarrhea by 30%, and by almost 60% in people with compromised immune systems. It also reduces the spread of the common cold and other respiratory diseases by up to 20%. And if you think all that isn’t a big deal, you should know that diarrhea and pneumonia are the two worst killers of children — almost 2 million children every year.

Don’t worry, I’m not just making this video to shame you into washing your hands after you pee. I’m also going to tell you about a cool new study that could enable us to trick you disgusting germ factories into washing your hands. Science!

In a funny twist, the secret may be to make washing hands slightly more difficult. Bear with me. Psychologists at the University of Colorado Denver and the Chinese Academy of Sciences conducted a joint study in which they approached Chinese food factories — that’s food factories in China, not factories anywhere producing Chinese food — and tried to get the employees to improve how often they were using sanitizer to clean their hands and workspaces. Each employee already had a spray bottle full of cleaner in it, but the researchers gave everyone in on factory a second bottle that let them squirt the cleaner on their surfaces. It worked the same way but the delivery system made it a little more inconvenient to use.

In another factory, they offered employees the option of soaking their hands, which was way more inconvenient than the spray bottle but also much more effective.

In a third factory, which was the control, they just gave the employees a second spray bottle in a different color.

Their hypothesis was based on the “decoy effect,” the idea that if someone isn’t too thrilled about one thing, you can offer them another option that is worse in order to make the first thing look better. For instance, if you sell used cars and you’re trying to sell someone a lemon, when they ask to see something else you can just show them a complete junker, making them more likely to think maybe the lemon isn’t so bad.

Sure enough, in this case offering the factory workers a less convenient option made them more likely to use the spray sanitizer they’d had all along. Prior to the study, 70-74% of employees had sufficiently clean hands during hand swap inspections. After the study, that figure rose to 92-98% in the two groups that got a less efficient option. The number stayed the same in the control group.

The study was such an immediate success that one of the factories let the researchers know that they implemented the decoy sanitizer throughout their entire workforce. The researchers are going to follow up by testing the decoy effect in hospitals, since it’s incredibly important that healthcare professionals wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease, yet only 78% of them are doing it.

After that, maybe they can figure something out for public restrooms. Many of them already have decoy soap dispensers, but those are just soap dispensers that are broken or empty. Not quite the same. But maybe it could be as simple as offering both a liquid soap dispenser and a bar of soap, though that’s not the sort of thing that would probably be done in, say, a dive bar. But I bet there’s another way we can trick people into washing their hands even in dive bars. Scientists! Get on it!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. In other news, what’s with these Chinese factories and loose policies about handwashing?

    I expect some neoliberal will say “But you can’t judge them for not making their employees wash their hands. Or for using lead-based paint in toys and other products made for children.”

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