In the age of a pandemic where personal hygiene cannot be understated, chances are you’ve just washed your hands, are going to wash your hands or are currently washing your hands. We know we live in stranges times when we value personal hygiene over time and money.
Do you plan on continuing this? Or like any other health facade, will this be yet another forgotten precaution? Like the 12-month gym membership that didn’t make it to February, the diet that went away with one late-night craving, or the 5 a.m. alarm that was not as warm as your blanket.
You might shrug away and say this hygiene mission you’re on is not one that was forced upon you, and unlike the summer it won’t leave in June. But that you’ll stick with it, especially now you know the importance of good personal hygiene. However, some realists may contradict this, stating, once the virus passes, people will go back to their old ways and that the only thing keeping them clean was, quite ironically, a virus.
It does open the question of how will personal hygiene change once Covid-19 passes? As far as social experiments go, using the trail of consistency and commitment, we could be in for a clean, if not a cleaner future.
Robert Cialdini in his book “Influence” charts through brilliant explanations and apt studies the role of human flaws, if you will, to act in irrational manners, namely in five distinct themes. One of which is our need to be persistently consistent and committed to past behavior. This behavior was portrayed by a social experiment of energy conservation as a good habit among households during the winter months.
The experiment headed by Dr. Michael Pallack aimed to find the change in household behavior when provided with a short-term incentive, and if the incentive were quickly taken away, would the households resort to their earlier behavior, and how would consistency factor in?
Initially, the households were given tips on energy conservation which they promised to abide by, providing no incentive on offer. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the month, “no real savings had occurred.” Pallack decided, people needed “something more” in order to “shift long-standing energy patterns,” aimed at the ‘conspicuous consumption’ nature of demand. This demand for a product is rooted in showing it off to the public, or to those that do not have it. For the households, this was given through publicity for energy saved. In the second phase of the experiment, the researchers told households that if they saved energy, their names would be mentioned in the newspaper as “public-spirited, fuel-conserving citizens.”
The effect, as Cialdini put it, was “immediate.” A month later, the utility companies noted that the households saved on average 422 cubic feet of natural gas per house. The motivation of social appreciation for a personal good habit undoubtedly resulted in a drop in energy consumption. Parallels can be drawn with the experiment and our current hygiene predicament. With the current pandemic, the motivation is less having your name published in the newspaper, and more having your name not published under the obituary section. Needless to say, the motivation to wash your hands is worth more.
But what happens when the rug is pulled from under our feet? When the pandemic passes, will we still value personal hygiene as much as we do now? The experiment continues.
The researchers then informed the households, the newspaper would not be able to publish their names despite their initial promise and the energy saved. A sudden swipe of the only incentive driving energy conservation, for the now-changed households. Did the households get back to their frivolous and wasteful way? Quite the contrary.
In the remaining winter months, the households “conserved more fuel” than they had when the carrot of publicity dangled in front of them. The energy savings in the month of promised publicity was 12.2% and for the rest of the sans publicity winter, the savings increased to 15.5%.
An important lesson in commitment and consistency can be taken away from this. The households were promised publicity and presumably acted on this motivation to start incorporating energy-saving habits, which got the ball rolling. Once they acquired these habits, they started checking off a whole range of aspects, in a self-evaluation manner, with a view of being consistent. They began looking at themselves as conservation-minded, energy-efficient, and public-spirited individuals even without social appreciation. They even began acknowledging, on a macro-scale, the country’s need to stop depending on foreign fuel, by saving more on a micro-level. Cialdini noted,
“With all these new reasons present to justify the commitment to use less energy, it is no wonder that the commitment remained firm even after the original reason, newspaper publicity, had been kicked away.”
The need to keep consistent runs deeper. Deeper than mere newspaper publicity. In fact, Cialdini wrote, the publicity was less a catalyst and more an impediment to the households’ desire to ‘fully own their commitment to conservation.’ Once the dangling carrot of external motivation was removed from the equation, no outside forces persisted, allowing the households to fully believe they were energy-conscious.
Cancelling the promised and earned publicity which was thought to prevent conservation, only accelerated it. Now the households did not have any outside force molding their image into energy-conscious beings, they could carve it all on their own. It was this self-reflection that allowed more and not less conservation.
Washing our hands, among other personal hygiene habits, is something we as a society have taken up to ward off a fatal disease. Like the households, we now have a lucrative external motivation to abide by these habits, and also promote them for societal benefit. Cialdini has shown us this habit does not end with the erosion of external motivation, but rather it develops with the realization that we really are conscious of our hygiene.
Once the virus fades away, and life slips back into normalcy, we as self-conscious and social beings will not only reflect on the importance of washing our hands but we will convince ourselves — ‘This is who we were all along.’ Our denial away from a frivolous attitude towards hygiene will be replaced by the hygiene-hyperfocused, cleanliness-concerned, and sanitation-sensible people we become, not because we changed, but because we realized who we truly are.
We might not wash our hands twenty times a day, we might not sanitize everything bought from the supermarket, we might not wear masks and gloves when we leave the house, but we will change for the better. Human commitment and consistency will ensure we do.
Don’t forget to wash your hands.