Ozark River Manufacturing Co.

The Psychology of COVID Hand Washing

Wash your hands. The simple statement drilled into all of us as children has taken on a new, shall we say, public role in all our lives. We’re all doing that sneaky side-eye at the restaurant bathroom sink and are extremely wary to touch any surfaces not in our own homes. We’re justified in this mindset, obviously. Experts told us to wear masks, keep a distance, and…wash our hands. 

Shaking hands used to be the norm. Is it ever going to come back? Will the awkward elbow touches and ankle shakes be the new greeting fad of the future? I suppose that’s up to us and our own socially accepted hand washing standards.

What makes people wash their hands, besides the obvious inherent obligation, is actually more complex than one would have imagined. The drastic increase in hand washing since the onset of COVID-19 is multifaceted and definitely not as simple as trying not to get sick.

Mentality means a lot

Evolutionary psychologists have been studying this for decades and they’ve found hand hygiene has a lot to do with behavioral psychology. For example, if you’re an ‘unrealistic optimist’, you’re less likely to wash your hands. Perceiving the world as mostly positive outcomes would suggest less attention to risk-reducing behaviors.  

Even hand washing campaigns and their methods have been researched extensively. One study, in particular, was conducted on doctors who didn’t respond as well to logical, rational hand washing campaigns as they did to experiential approaches. The participants subconsciously preferred emotional, instinct-driven campaigns that connected with them on a human level. Overall, the facts aren’t as effective as the feelings. 

COVID’s impact on mentality

Ok, so putting those two ideas together, the outcome of improved hand washing rates makes sense. The tragedy of COVID would shake even the most ‘unrealistic optimist’ and what more of an emotional campaign does the public need than the reality of the pandemic itself. And so, the rates of hand washing compliance have risen drastically since COVID-19, which also may be why we notice the odd ones out.

Invisible threats are threatening too

What about these odd ones out and why hasn’t hand washing risen to 100%? Well, that’s not as simple as choosing not to wash up either. In general, it has nothing to do with our intentions or desire for public health and safety. The Healthy Handwashing Survey found that 97% of respondents think hand washing after using a public bathroom is vital and yet 67% rinsed with only water. So where is the disconnect between understanding hand washing importance and actually doing it?

As we evolved from our caveman days, our inherent reaction to threats hasn’t changed much. We could see the much larger than us animal lurking around. We could feel dangerous weather conditions and take shelter. We could read an opponent’s body language for hints of oncoming violence. We cannot see, feel, or read germs and bacteria. Therefore, it’s much more difficult to perceive them as omnipresent threats.

Unless we’re continuously bombarded with visual and tangible cues to wash our hands, a lot of us will unintentionally forget the threats very much thriving on our hands. According to the same Healthy Handwashing Survey, “almost 40 percent of Americans say they’re more likely to wash their hands after seeing a sign that requires employees to wash before returning to work.”

COVID’s impact on threat assessment

The issue arises when we’re just going through the motions and not deliberately following steps or paying attention to signs and campaigns. However, it’s hard not to see the omnipresent reminders to wash our hands these days. Once again, the pandemic has jarred us out of this autopilot and shifted our psychology around threats.

Reacting to new social norms

Let’s talk about social norms. Nowadays, we’re noticing when others don’t do the five-fingered soap salsa, but people have stubbornly not washed their hands in public for, well, always. Research has shown this is for several reasons outside of these behavioral and social inclinations. Lack of proper facilities, perceived time, and inconvenience are all huge factors.

COVID’s impact on social norms

Ah, but now if you don’t take those 20 seconds to scrub up, you’re putting me and my loved ones at risk (hypothetical non-writer, me). The slight irritant and setback of a minute or two are given a new perspective and context. Decision-making is much more contingency-based. To an extent, COVID has surpassed and trumped our inherent evolutionary and behavioral tendencies, although not totally.

Bringing it all together

The shift in social norms and the focus on others as responsible for our own health and safety is powerful. We’ve always been semi-conformist creatures, especially in groups. If all our counterparts are washing their hands, we probably will too. This relates to even when no one is around now though, which it didn’t use to. Now there’s a built-in responsibility for those around us and the reward has less to do with our own individual well-being than it ever has.   

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