Menus Subscribe Search
(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Dirty Tricks

• February 01, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Can subliminal bathroom messaging convince guys to actually wash their hands?

The good news about hand washing is that 96 percent of Americans do it every time they use a public bathroom. Or, that’s what 96 percent of Americans say, anyway.

Such self-reported behavior is too good to be true, of course, so when researchers from the American Society for Microbiology want to know the dirty truth about human hygiene, they don’t just conduct phone interviews: they go hide in crowded bathrooms—Atlanta’s Turner Field, New York’s Grand Central Station, San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal—and surreptitiously take notes.

The results aren’t so reassuring. An observational study by the ASM in 2010 found that just 65 percent of dudes at Turner Field soaped up before heading back to watch the game, a lousy showing compared to the 98 percent of ladies who did so. Shoppers at a San Francisco farmers’ market had markedly better habits, washing up close to 90 percent of the time, while just four in five New Yorkers hurrying to catch a train did so. (And all those were higher than similar rates reported in a study looking at a British gas station bathroom.)

How to motivate the unwashed masses? We’ve written in the past about “normative messaging”: using descriptive norms (“Eighty-five percent of homeowners turn down the thermostat when they leave the house”) to spur humans to change their behavior. Social psychologists like Robert Cialdini have demonstrated that we care as much about doing what is popular as what is right, and we search for shortcuts to inform our decisions. As the authors of a new paper on normative messaging and hand washing put it, “When a behavior is prevalent, people assume that engaging in the behavior must be the wise thing to do and, thus, will be more likely to do it.”

The subjects of the study, which appears in Human Communication Research, were 252 male students at a large Midwestern university. To inject some humor into their messaging, the psychologists designed a poster where five men stand at urinals, their backs to the viewer. Four wear baseball caps from the home university (say, Ohio State) and one wears a rival cap (say, Michigan). “Four out of five college students wash their hands EVERY time they use the bathroom,” reads the tagline.

In a separate condition, the authors tweaked the poster to show one friendly fan and four rivals, with the tagline, ‘‘One out of five college students wash their hands EVERY time they use the bathroom.’’

Normative psychology predicted that men who saw the higher statistic (i.e. 80 percent of guys wash up) would be more likely to head for the sink than men who saw the lower figure (i.e. 20 percent).

But, oddly, when an observer hid in a closed stall and took notes, the reverse proved true: for reasons the psychologists were at a loss to explain, men who saw the low statistic washed up more often (88 percent of the time) than their classmates (81 percent). Both groups did better than control subjects, only 70 percent of whom rinsed off.

In a related line of inquiry, the psychologists tested an “observer effect” on hand washing by having the note-taker occasionally leave his stall and pretend to scrub a stain at the sink. Across all conditions, when unsuspecting subjects believed they were alone in the bathroom, just 75 percent washed their hands. When they knew they were being watched, however, the figure jumped to 86 percent.

The results suggest we still have much to learn about normative messaging. The satirical poster motivated action, but not necessarily in the way theory predicted. Most of the effect, it seems, came from being explicitly reminded to wash up, and not from subtle hints about the popularity of good hygiene. Global Handwashing Day still has its work cut out for it. In other areas, of course, from energy conservation to seatbelt use to responsible drinking, descriptive norms have proved more powerful. Do norms only work for public behavior? Are there certain bad habits that simply can’t be overcome?

In at least one regard, thoroughness of hand washing, the answer seems to be yes. When even the cleanliest men were scored against the CDC’s guidelines—use hot water, scrub for 20 seconds, turn off the faucet with a towel—the “quality was uniformly bad.”

Ladies? Try Purell.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.