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Photo of a girl washing her hands.

Washing your hands does more than rid your skin of germs.

Photograph by Luca Tettoni, Corbis

Chelsea Huang

National Geographic

Published November 7, 2013

In addition to preventing the spread of germs and flu, washing your hands might also reduce feelings of failure, according to a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Kai Kaspar, of the University of Osnabrück, found that washing hands after a failed task reduces feelings of failure, but can also decrease the motivation to try harder the next time around.

"I am interested in how bodily experiences and abstract cognitions are intertwined and how they affect each other," Kaspar said.

Kaspar is not the first to explore this topic; previous research explored the "clean state effect"—the positive impact, for example, of washing on feelings of moral purity and the belief that good or bad luck can be "washed off." However, he is among the first to explore its effects on subsequent behavior.

"I wanted to enlarge this scope to actual cognitive performance because previous literature suggests that washing can remove traces of the past—undesirable or desirable," Kaspar said. "Consequently, I asked whether washing can also reboot our optimism after failure and what consequences this would have on subsequent performance."

Kaspar placed study participants in two groups and asked them to solve the same "impossible task." After inevitably failing the task, one group washed their hands; the other did not. Though both groups felt optimistic that they could handle the task better a second time, the hand-washing group was significantly more optimistic.

Higher optimism did not correlate with higher motivation, though. A second shot at the "impossible task" resulted in higher performance levels in the group that had not washed their hands.

Although there are several explanations for the higher performance levels in those who didn't wash their hands, Kasper's preferred theory is that washing after failure can help one feel better and give closure to the matter. But it also washes away the desire to try harder.

"Washing seems to work like a ritual which we use to close a matter and this, in turn, can have several effects on the mental level—and does not only remove dirt from the body," Kaspar said.

If only it had worked for the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth.

Koko Gjakovski
Koko Gjakovski

It feels like relief after washing the hands I guess. Anyways nice information

Chudamani Akavaram
Chudamani Akavaram

" washing hands off" seems to be a psychological metaphor in many languages.Some one who has ended his association with someone else or something might say "I have washed off my hands with it or him".

ray robles
ray robles

This subject really fascinates me and will give it more interest this can be very helpful in so many ways in our life span, Thank you

Verg Matthews
Verg Matthews


Am a wee bit puzzled: how does your husband tolerate you........ or are you a troglodyte?!.........MATTS

Raj P.
Raj P.

it worked for pontius pilot

M Paulin
M Paulin

"I am interested in how bodily experiences and abstract cognitions are intertwined and how they affect each other," Kaspar said.

And so has every other deep thinker and acid traveller. They just study it in other ways. 

I can tell you though, that since I stopped washing my hair and entire body daily, my life long skin conditions have cleared up, I have saved a fortune in water bills, which has allowed me not to work so hard, my hair has never looked better and I have more time to focus on the things I love! Those daily showers were costing me an hour and a half a week. Add that up per month and there you have an extra day!

I worked all this out quite a few years back now when I took a look at consumerism and why people un-consciously follow daily rituals. The amount of them quite horrifying when you add them all up, but it didn't seem to bother anyone. Well, except me anyhow. I looked at each daily western ritual and quizzed it down to the fundamentals and what I found astounded me!!

And so, best of luck with your study!

Tom Huang
Tom Huang

There is a chinese saying that goes "金盆洗手"- Wash your hands in a gold basin-which refers to  that somebody quits commiting something bad for good.

jas stellar
jas stellar

@Marina Paulin personally, I find that if I don't shower daily, my eczema flares up badly. I think its kudo's to you if you have found extra time in your month by forfeiting showering. if you are happy doing that, good luck to you. 

but I think its a little naïve to assume others shower simply as a western daily ritual, and that they follow blindly in the wake of consumerism. Apart from the eczema, I also have to shower before leaving work. its a workplace requirement. 

jas stellar
jas stellar

@Marina Paulin personally, I find that if I don't shower daily, my eczema flares up badly. I think its a little bit naïve to  assume everyone showers daily simply as a 'western daily ritual'. One thing that people should realise is others do things for many different reasons.


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