Handwipes aren’t just for germs anymore. Their uses may extend to more flexible thinking and reorienting one’s priorities.
A pair of researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management has found the physicality of cleaning one’s hands acts to shift goal pursuit, making prior goals less important and subsequent goals more important.
The researchers’ four experiments each began by bringing participants’ attention to particular goals through word games or a short survey, a process called “priming.” The participants were then asked to either merely evaluate or actually use a handwipe. Those who were asked to use the wipe became less likely to think of the previously primed goal, less likely to make behavioral choices consistent with it, and less likely to find it important. Furthermore, their focus was more easily reoriented towards a subsequently primed goal.
Previous work has already shown that physical cleansing reduces the impact of previous psychological experiences, such as guilt arising from immoral behaviour. The current research unpacks the underlying mental process: cleansing embodies a psychological procedure of separation. Wiping away dirt serves as a physical proxy for mentally separating ideas that linger from previous experience, hence preparing a “clean slate” for focusing on new ones.