Media Releases

Can’t shake old ideas? Wash them off, suggests Rotman study

June 12, 2017

Toron­to, ON – 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.

“For peo­ple who were primed with a health goal, for exam­ple, using the hand­wipe reduced their sub­se­quent ten­den­cy to behave in a healthy man­ner — they were more like­ly to choose a choco­late bar over a gra­nola bar,” says Ping Dong, a PhD stu­dent in mar­ket­ing who con­duct­ed the research with Spike W. S. Lee, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing.

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.

This research exam­ined cleansing’s short-term rather than long-term impact on goal pur­suit, points out Ms. Dong, who will join the fac­ul­ty at North­west­ern University’s Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment lat­er this year. While it may be pre­ma­ture to sug­gest that peo­ple intent on achiev­ing goals should sig­nif­i­cant­ly alter their per­son­al hygiene rou­tines, the find­ings do sug­gest that when it comes to find­ing prac­ti­cal tricks for redi­rect­ing one’s think­ing away from old fruit­less pur­suits towards new and bet­ter ones, an anti­sep­tic wipe may come in handy.

The study was pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy: Gen­er­al.

For the lat­est think­ing on busi­ness, man­age­ment and eco­nom­ics from the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, vis­it

The Rot­man School of Man­age­ment is locat­ed in the heart of Canada’s com­mer­cial and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal and is part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, one of the world’s top 20 research uni­ver­si­ties. The Rot­man School fos­ters a new way to think that enables our grad­u­ates to tack­le today’s glob­al busi­ness and soci­etal chal­lenges.  For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it


For more infor­ma­tion:

Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-3818