Does Physical Hand Washing Affect Risk Taking Behavior?

Superstitious people believe the physical act of touching a good luck charm can elicit luck and think that physical cleansing can remove bad luck. However, researchers from the University of Toronto, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Riverside, wanted to determine if superstitious people would take more or less risk as a result of washing their hands. They enlisted 59 students and asked half of them to remember a particular incident that resulted in financial luck, and half an experience of bad financial luck. The test subjects were then instructed to evaluate a hand cleaning product, half of whom used it to clean their hands. To determine their willingness to take risk, the participants were presented with a scenario in which they had to make an important business decision involving significant financial risk.

The researchers discovered if they had cleaned their hands, the participants who remembered bad luck were more likely to take risk than those who had not cleaned their hands, suggesting they believed they had washed their bad luck away. Additionally, in the group who did not use the hand cleaning product, 77 percent of those who remembered an experience of good luck took more risk, compared to only 36 percent of the participants who recalled an episode of bad luck. Not surprisingly, those who washed their good luck memories away were less likely to choose the risky decision than those who had not cleaned their good luck memories away. The researchers discovered similar results in a second experiment that examined the robustness of their findings by using a gambling scenario that involved repeated episodes of good or bad luck. The researchers said, “Our findings highlight that the psychological power of physical cleansings is not limited to traces of the past that people want to remove. Even the winners, whose usual superstitious practices indicate a desire to hold on to their good luck, are affected by an incidental hand cleaning and take less risk once their good luck has been removed.”

Xu, A. J., Zwick, R., & Schwarz, N. (2011, June 27). Washing Away Your (Good or Bad) Luck: Physical Cleansing Affects Risk-Taking Behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023997

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • A Lee

    A Lee

    August 10th, 2011 at 6:54 PM

    I believe in this too. When I’m watching a game on TV and if my team is winning,I HAVE to sit in the same place if I want my team to win. No moving for anything, whether it is washroom or food, I’m not going to move. Haha you may all it superstition but it works. If I do happen to move they just lose!

  • James Morrison

    James Morrison

    August 11th, 2011 at 3:49 AM

    Really?!These people know very well that there is no logic in what they’re doing but continue to do so.What is it that makes them do things without any proven logic?

    I’d also like to add that only a certain section of people would do things like this and that some of us are always free of these superstition-following rituals.

  • Sammi


    August 11th, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    was knowing this even worth the time and energy devoted to it? i look here for valuable info, not whether or not i am a freak or it makes me a freak for washing my hands.

  • damien


    August 12th, 2011 at 6:05 AM

    sometimes coincidences turn into beliefs because they have happened too many times.not that I do this all the time but yes it happens at times but is rare.

  • Levi Patrick

    Levi Patrick

    August 13th, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    “The researchers discovered if they had cleaned their hands, the participants who remembered bad luck were more likely to take risk than those who had not cleaned their hands, suggesting they believed they had washed their bad luck away.”

    Heck, that’s a leap! Seriously? To call this a study is a joke. I wish all these so-called studies would stop coming out that are based upon a handful of participants and questionable assumptions. It makes a mockery of the serious studies out there.

  • Inez


    August 14th, 2011 at 4:55 AM

    I completely agree with Levi! This money probably could have been much better spent elsewhere!

  • amie pearson

    amie pearson

    August 14th, 2011 at 7:06 PM

    The ones that cross the line between mild superstition and being totally reliant upon such ideas need serious help. I’ve known a few Feng Shui believers and that doesn’t bother me at all, but on the bad side of the spectrum I’ve known two or three that would actually freak out if you do something that summons or encourages “bad luck”.

  • Belle


    August 17th, 2011 at 3:23 PM

    If you get angry or violent when a person does something that you feel draws bad luck, that’s a red flag that your reaction is an excessive one. Are people truly that superstitious in this day and age? We live in the times of condos, not caves. That’s amazing.

  • R.B.


    August 19th, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    Taking risks because you think you’re lucky is very reckless and also very stupid. There are times when luck can help, but relying on it when there are potentially big losses at stake? That will ruin you fast and isn’t very smart.

    I know a guy who will bet at the dog track only on #7 in each race. He doesn’t read their form and goes with “Lucky 7!!” as he likes to call it every single time. Of course he’s lost a small fortune betting so haphazardly without studying the runners.

    You should never allow your superstitious nature to override your commonsense.

  • Earl Kerrence-Behaight

    Earl Kerrence-Behaight

    September 26th, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    Nobody would consider me superstitious but I would say I am superstitious to a moderate degree. I can strongly relate what the first commenter said, with my Yankees I feel it is my duty to watch all games in order to help them win. I honestly feel like I have some control over the game when I’m watching, but when I know I game is being played that I am not watching I feel powerless.

    It’s a burden I suppose you could say, but it has never effected my hand washing. I wash my hands when ever I come inside or go to the bathroom and I would still do this if whether I was purely scientifically or a complete superstitious nut. It was the way I raised that has caused me to do this not anything else. I think it is the same for everyone else too.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.