Hand-Scrubbing Washes Away Bad Feelings … And Motivation?

You'll wash away feelings of failure, but also feel less inspired to improve.

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


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.