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Can't shake old ideas? Wash them off, suggests U of T Rotman study

A U of T study suggests you may want to set goals after cleaning your hands (photo by Petras Gagilas via Flickr)

Cleaning your hands doesn't just get rid of germs – a U of T study suggests it also helps wipe away old goals and reorients you toward new ones.

Previously, research has shown that the physical act of cleaning reduces the impact of previous psychological experiences, such as guilt arising from immoral behaviour. 

The new research by U of T's Rotman School of Management unpacks the underlying psychology behind cleansing – it includes a component of separation. Researchers say that wiping away dirt serves as a physical proxy for mentally separating ideas that linger from a previous experience – think of the term “beginning with a clean slate.”

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology

Researchers initially focused participants on particular goals through word games or a short survey, a process called “priming.”

They then had participants evaluate the goals or use a hand wipe.

Those who were asked to use the wipe became less likely to think of the previous goals, less likely to make behavioral choices consistent with it and less likely to find it important. They were also more easily reoriented towards a subsequently primed goal.

“For people who were primed with a health goal, for example, using the hand wipe reduced their subsequent tendency to behave in a healthy manner  they were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over a granola bar,” says Ping Dong, a PhD student in marketing who conducted the research, with Spike W. S. Lee, an assistant professor of marketing. Dong will be joining the faculty at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management later this year.

While it may be premature to suggest that people intent on achieving goals should significantly alter their personal hygiene routines, the findings do suggest that when it comes to finding practical tricks for redirecting one's priorities, an antiseptic wipe may come in handy.

June 12, 2017

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