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How washing your hands might make you a more agile employee

Rotman research indicates employees would do well to wash their hands between work tasks, wiping the slate clean as it were.


The Globe's latest report on research from business schools.

The English language is rife with expressions making reference to the psychological power of cleansing.

We're told to "wipe the slate clean" when we want to try something new. Similarly, we will "wash our hands" of someone or something in a bid to break that connection.

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The enduring popularity of such idioms was enough to pique the interests of researchers Ping Dong and Spike W.S. Lee at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

The two academics recently authored a study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, examining the real-life connection between cleanliness and our ability to adapt to new ideas – as in, wiping the mental slate clean.

"It got us thinking: Does cleansing help people move on to new pursuits? How far do these effects go?" Ms. Dong says of the study's thesis in an e-mail.

To answer those questions, Ms. Dong, a PhD student, and Dr. Lee, an assistant professor of marketing, conducted four experiments, each one designed to understand how the physical act of cleaning our hands affects our ability to let go of old ideas and embrace fresh ones.

The researchers separated participants into two categories: One group was given an antiseptic hand wipe to use between sessions and the other was not. Both groups were asked to focus their attention on particular goals through word games or a short survey, a process called "priming."

The result? Those who wiped their hands were found to be less likely to think about the previously "primed" goal, less likely to make behavioural choices consistent with that previous goal, and less likely to find it important.

For example, for participants who were told to focus on a health goal, using the hand wipe made them more likely to choose a chocolate bar over a granola bar.

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The researchers also found that the importance of a newly introduced goal was amplified after participants cleaned their hands.

The study builds on existing research that links physical cleansing and psychological experience in the moral domain. A 2006 study, for instance, found that guilt associated with previous unethical behaviour could be reduced by cleaning one's hands.

The new study also generates a wide range of new predictions regarding other possible psychological influences of physical cleansing on people's behaviour.

"By wiping their hands, people might make fewer errors in switching between tasks that require different mental procedures, and, more generally, become less influenced by past primes [and] more influenced by future ones," says Ms. Dong.

Ms. Dong says the research has strong business applications, noting that managers and employees are often asked to pursue or shift between multiple goals. With an organization's success resting on the agility of its staff, many of us fail in the process.

It could be that taking a break to wash one's hands could make all the difference: "Given what we found, we suggest that physical cleansing may be a handy way to help people adjust their goal pursuit effectively," she says.

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Ms. Dong, who is slated to join the faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management this year, says she and Dr. Lee plan to continue their research, tackling a range of new questions raised in the initial experiments: To what extent does cleansing enhance the flexibility of goal processes in daily life? In what situations? For all cultural groups, or only some? How long and robust are these effects?

They also intend to dig a little deeper to determine what is actually going on in our minds to allow "mental cleansing" to take place.

"The exact deeper mechanism remains to be identified. But we know for sure, based on our present results, that cleansing functions as an embodied procedure of psychological separation," she says.

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