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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Washing Hands Removes Doubt, Not Just Dirt

Hand Washing Can Rinse Away Doubts, Help You Live With Your Decisions, Study Finds

Hand Washing Mimics Washing Away Sin

The study results were replicated by getting participants to choose one of two fruit jams, and then cleanse their hands with antiseptic wipes in an ostensibly unrelated survey.

Again, participants “who merely examined an antiseptic wipe after choosing a jar of fruit jam expected the taste of the chosen jam to far exceed the taste of the rejected one,” Lee says in the news release. “This difference was eliminated when participants tested the antiseptic wipe by cleaning their hands.”

The results, he tells WebMD, show that as much as people feel that washing cleanses people of past immoral behaviors, it also can reduce the need to justify decisions.

Lee says this “clean slate” effect may have real-life implications. Washing hands may eliminate remorse for buying one car instead of another, of going to Rome instead of Paris on vacation, or even of choosing one partner over another.

Lee tells WebMD the phenomenon is a relic of the human notion of washing away sins.

“Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare tried to wash away her guilt of killing King Duncan,” he says. “Baptism is washing away past sins. We have to take these metaphors more seriously.”

Lee says the next avenue to explore is positive feelings. He notes that some baseball players may not wash “lucky” socks, and that people have a tendency not to wash their hands after touching someone famous.

“Maybe there is a tendency to want to wipe away past negative experiences and to avoid washing away positive ones,” Lee says.

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