Shaming people into washing their hands

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© GAETAN BALLY/Keystone/Corbis

© GAETAN BALLY/Keystone/Corbis

In a study that tracked hand-washing behavior in 250,000 people, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that only a third of men washed with soap, compared with two thirds of women, the BBC reports. Authors of the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, used sensors to monitor hand-washing, and ran public health messages across LED screens that were placed outside of bathrooms at rest stops. They then tracked which messages inspired more hand-washing.

The most successful messages? Those that created a sense of shame, it turns out. Phrases intended to serve as friendly reminders, such as “water doesn’t kill germs, soap does,” were intermixed with those meant to inspire disgust, “soap it off, or eat it later,” but of the messages that ran across the screens positioned at bathroom entrances, it was one in particular that got significant results—”Is the person next to you washing with soap?” The rate of hand-washing jumped by 11% among women who saw this message, and by 12% among men, leading the researchers to conclude that social acceptance—and a resulting sense of shame—strongly influenced people’s hygiene. (Men, generally, were more likely to wash their hands when there were more people in the bathroom as well.)

Especially with flu season nearly upon us, it is important to remember the importance of hand-washing, experts say. The simple practice is an easy and effective way to minimize the spread of infectious diseases such as diarrhea, cold and flu.