Study Suggests Hand Washing May Cleanse Doubts

The idea that washing one’s hands helps to ease concerns about moral tribulations is fairly old, and has been investigated by researchers in the past. Yet a new study performed at the University of Michigan has investigated the ability of hand washing to address issues of doubt, finding that the activity can counteract classic reactions to the acquisition or loss of an item. The work was carried out with a group of participating university students and attempted to find whether the act of hand washing could predict how the students would react to doubts created about specific products.

In the first of two experiments, students were asked to look through a collection of thirty CD covers, and were assigned the task of ranking them in order of their preference. The students were then offered a choice between their fifth and sixth ranked CDs as a gift. Following this choice, the students were asked to examine a soap product and complete a survey. Some of the students chose simply to inspect the soap, while others used it to wash their hands. After this task, the students were involved in an unrelated activity, and were then asked to rank the CDs once again. The researchers found that those students who had washed their hands during the soap survey task tended to show little magnification of their original choice, placing the chosen CD and the rejected CD at about the same rankings, while those who had merely inspected the product exhibited a classic behavior involving the amplification of the chosen CD to a higher ranking, and a demotion of the rejected CD to a lower ranking.

The second experiment followed similar lines but was conducted with different fruit jams as chosen objects and antiseptic wipes as hand cleaning agents. Similar results were found in this second trial. The researchers have concluded that in addition to lessening the emotional and mental impact of moral dilemmas, hand washing may also allow people to escape typical feelings of doubt, lowering the need to justify personal choices that many people feel.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Albie Morkel

    May 10th, 2010 at 11:39 AM

    So,the saying ‘washing your hands off’ might actually hold good, after all. Although the reason why this happens may not be too well know, I can confirm to the findings of this study by my own experience. I don’t know why but I have recently developed the habit of washing my hands every few minutes and yes, I do not repent about things for too long and can get my mind rid of sad feeling quite easily.

  • Daisy C.B.

    May 11th, 2010 at 3:50 AM

    Quite interesting…there is no apparent connection between the two and yet there is a lot that has been proved!Interesting to read things like these.

  • caroline

    May 11th, 2010 at 4:41 AM

    so maybe Lady Macbeth was not so out of touch after all. . .

  • isaac

    May 11th, 2010 at 9:18 AM

    I wonder where an OCD patient’s obsession with hand washing falls into this?

  • Ella

    May 17th, 2010 at 9:34 PM

    I know that when I’m washing my hands I switch into a kind of auto-pilot daydream mode. Could it be that they used that time to mull over their previous decision and reinforce it in their mind and subconscious? I wonder…

  • Claire

    May 18th, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    That’s very interesting. I’ve never heard of that hand washing link. Who would have believed that the phrase I’m washing my hands of it has a basis in fact after all? Fascinating. There is so much about our inner workings that we don’t know.

  • Ian

    May 18th, 2010 at 2:03 PM

    That’s a plausible explanation, Ella. I can see how the almost unconscious nature of the action could do that. I find thoughts come to the surface when I’m carrying out simple tasks like dishes or laundry that require little thought. I’d love to know more about the past research on hand washing that put forth similar theories. Hand washing is therefore cleansing your mind as well as your body, is it not?

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