In Box

Watch Yourself Clean

How to shake off those regrets -- no Lady Macbeth routine required.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

Different cultures have long recognized the transcendent power of ritual hand-washing. From Shintoism to Judaism to Hinduism to Islam, major religious traditions require hand-washing before certain meals or prayers to ensure clean palms — and a pure spirit.

Turns out, there really is some emotional value in a good wash. Research shows that even watching someone else wash his or her hands can make a person feel less guilty about past misdeeds.

Researchers at the University of Grenoble, the Catholic University of Louvain, and Ohio State University asked 65 adults to remember and write down a wrong they had committed against someone close to them. The participants were then asked to either use a wet wipe to clean their hands, watch a two-minute video of someone else using a wet wipe, or watch a two-minute video of a person typing. Afterward, they were asked to take a few tests to rate how guilty they felt and — only if they wanted — to help a Ph.D. student by completing questionnaires about local public transportation and returning them in three weeks.

Those who watched the typing video had the highest average guilt scores; those who washed their own hands scored the lowest. Meanwhile, participants whose hands had never gotten wet but who had watched others wash scored in between, demonstrating the power that even a vicarious cleansing has to send feelings of guilt down the drain. (To be sure, these participants’ average guilt scores fell closer to those of the people who had watched the typing video.)

As for the questionnaires, those were meant to test what researchers call "prosocial behavior": actions that, in assisting others, help alleviate guilt. Participants who had washed their own hands returned the fewest questionnaires, those who had watched the typing video returned the most, and vicarious washers returned at a rate somewhere in between — yet another indication that watching a hand-washing video made them feel that they had less for which to atone.

The power of even the briskest, most thorough scrub only goes so far when it comes to our emotions, of course. But the next time you forget to call your mother, a quick viewing of a hand-washing video on YouTube (they do exist) may just help you shake off those feelings of regret.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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