May 6th, 2010
02:00 PM ET

Wash your regrets away?

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

"Out, damned spot!" Lady Macbeth said as she famously tried to wash away her worries about having participated in murder. We all know how that turned out (she and husband both die in Shakespeare's tragedy).

But scientists say that the act of washing hands can actually help people cleanse themselves of concerns about past decisions, at least temporarily.

It may sound crazy that the simple act we (hopefully) go through multiple times a day to rid ourselves of bacteria and dirt could have an effect on our mental state. But University of Michigan researcher Spike Lee - no relation to the director - points out that this metaphor of cleansing can be found across cultures. And a 2006 study in Science found that washing hands can help people feel better about unethical behavior.

"When people have done bad things, they have sort of sins or traces or residuals from the past," he said. "By washing away the hands, there’s a sense of abstractly also washing away the past sins.

Lee and colleagues have a new study in Science this week supporting these ideas, adding that washing hands helps people look at choices they've made more objectively, as if removing the weight of the past decision. The idea is that humans tend to experience what's called cognitive dissonance. For instance, if you decide to take a job in a different city over a job in your city, you might focus only on the positive aspects of the new city in order to justify the choice to yourself.

In the first experiment, involving 40 undergraduates, participants chose 10 CDs they would like to own from a list of 30 and rank them in order of preference, and then were told to choose the fifth or sixth. Half the participants then washed their hands, and half did not. Then, everyone involved had to re-rank the 10 CDs. Those who did not cleanse themselves tended to rate the CD they had chosen higher than they had before, indicating they were making themselves feel better about their choices.

In the second experiment, 85 undergraduates were presented with four fruit jams, and then given the choice of two. About half of the group then cleansed their hands with an antiseptic wipe, and the other half did not. Then, they were asked to rate the taste of the four jams. Participants who did not clean their hands expected the chosen jam to taste much better than the jam they had rejected earlier.

Granted, these are not revolutionary, life-changing decisions like changing cities that are being studied, nor are the sample sizes very large. But the idea is compelling, given how the metaphor of washing turns up in so many disparate cultures, and could prompt further study.

"We should also expect physical washing to remove past concerns – concerns about past decisions, or past immoral behaviors, and that’s what we were able to show," Lee said.

More research is needed to assess the longterm effects of hand-washing and other cleansing on a person's mindset, Lee said.

Update: Several readers asked about a connection to obsessive-compulsive disorder in the comments. The study authors have not studied this condition. Co-author Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan speculates that excessive hand-washing, which can be a symptom of OCD, is not enough to banish the unwanted, persistent thoughts that accompany repetitive behaviors in the condition. But his study in Science did not involve individuals with OCD.

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Ginger Blymyer

    I have always believed a bath makes life better. I just draw a nice hot one and soak my troubles away, be they aches and pains, a cold, or confusion. I especially feel the need if I have been on a plane, with all the emotions that collect in one tight place.
    Right now I don't have a tub that works so only have a shower, that works okay, but the tub is the best.
    I wonder why American tubs are so crummy. The Europeans have these great deep comfy tubs that are so wonderful. I think we need to have a change of attitude about water, baths and taking time to relax. We are too fast and busy in this country and it shows in so many ways as stress. Hot water can fix that. Especially a bath.

    May 6, 2010 at 14:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Tom

    I'm surprised this article does not cover the obvious link between this study and OCD.

    May 6, 2010 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. B Rowlett

    Curious that there is no reference to the real most famous case of hand-washing as an attempt to reliee one's self of blame: Pontius Pilate...

    May 6, 2010 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. peyote

    So that why obama is always wahing his hands makes since thank you cnn

    May 7, 2010 at 00:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. A

    I agree with Tom. I don't have OCD, but I know people who do. This wouldn't be a very good article for an OCD sufferer to read. They're always riddled with anxiety, so an article like this might reinforce ritualistic hand washing.

    May 7, 2010 at 03:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Brad

    There is also a historically significant application here of baptism and its effect on the human psyche. It has been a cleansing ritual for thousands of years and is intrinsically linked, in many people's belief systems, to being washed clean from past mistakes. These physical rituals play an important part in creating cohesion in the psyche. When one has behaved contrary to one's own rules of what constitutes right and wrong behavior, there is a psychological dissonance that can lead to mental distress and dysfunction. When a ritual along with a commitment occurs in a person's life, those past mistakes become impotent in disturbing one's mental function. Many religious rituals symbolize a cleansing of the soul and become invaluable in preventing mental chaos and the break down of the integrity of a person's psyche.

    May 7, 2010 at 03:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Mariquita

    Hmmm. I wonder if this has anything to do with Pilate's washing of his own hands when he sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion? Based on the Biblical retelling, the man had all sorts of bad vibes about the whole thing.

    May 7, 2010 at 03:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Adam

    Very surprised Pontius Pilate wasn't mentioned in this article, his being the most famous incident of guilt removal via hand washing in all of history.

    May 7, 2010 at 04:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Ric H.

    My observations of those with OCD compulsions have always made me wonder whether the compulsion is a substitute for action that they did not take and cannot reconcile. Maybe they saw or were directly subjected to some crime where they were given only choices that were unacceptable to them morally. For instance, watch someone get killed, tortured, or raped, or possibly have the same done to you. When the mind is put in an unacceptable position, it can block out those cricumstances and events, but may need a buffer, a distraction if you will, to busy that portion or the rest of the mind with in order to keep the pain buried. Trying to identify or pull out the buried information can be just as traumatic as the event itself. So I don't know what can be done with the information. Maybe it's all about acceptance and instilling self-worth in those around us?

    May 7, 2010 at 06:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Chuck

    When the rain washes you clean you'll know...

    May 7, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jennifer

    If I'm feeling upset or anxious or just need a break, I like to go splash my face with cold water to give me a pause and make me feel better. Naturally, my hands get washed in this process. But the face splash is the best part. Then back to the day!

    May 7, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. terrix2000

    I agree with everyone. Very cool articla. It makes me thing about even a ritual like that in a relationship.

    May 7, 2010 at 09:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Liz

    ""Out, damned spot!" Lady Macbeth said as she famously tried to wash away her worries about having participated in murder. We all know how that turned out (she and husband both die in Shakespeare's tragedy). "

    -If we all knew how it turned out, why put an explanation?

    May 7, 2010 at 09:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Soon2bMD

    I long shower shower has always been my coping mechanism when faced with difficult and or decisions that I later felt regret about. Very interesting article indeed.

    May 7, 2010 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Roger, College Station, Texas

    http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml Is a web page of the National Institute Of Mental Health and says, "Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD, is an anxiety disorder and is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors such as handwashing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these so-called "rituals," however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety." It appears you have rediscovered mental illness and treatment.

    May 7, 2010 at 10:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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