83 Hand Washing and Optimism

Based on research by Kai Kaspar, 2013. Psychology Science Minute written by Kyle Piecora, M.S..

Does hand washing get rid of dirt, but also negative feelings?  In previous studies “physical cleansing” had psychological significance to one’s moral sense of self, e.g. cultural sayings: ‘I feel dirty after doing something wrong’  “start with a clean slate.’ ‘I’m clean!” meaning not guilty.

German psychologist Kai Kaspar sought to understand how hand washing affects people’s perceptions and performances on cognitive tasks.  He divided subjects into 2 experimental groups, and one control.  Experimental groups were asked to solve 25 anagram puzzles in 5 minutes, but failure was inevitable. Nineteen puzzles were unsolvable. When led to believe that 90% of their peers did better, their failure was emphasized.

Then, one experimental group had instructions to wash their hands before attempting another set of puzzles, but the other did not.  Before participants solved the next 25 anagrams (all solvable), experimental persons rated how optimistic they were in getting a higher score on the second task.  Those who did not wash their hands were less optimistic, but performed better than hand washers and the control group, evidently working extra hard to prove their competency.

Washing hands after a difficult time may “cleanse” negative feelings and make you more optimistic.  But beware, don’t reduce your competitive edge, use failure to give you incentive!


Kaspar, K.  (2013).  Washing one’s hands after failure enhances optimism but hampers future performance.  Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(1), 69-73.

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