16 Ways To Promote Handwashing With Behavioral Science

Aline Holzwarth
8 min readOct 28, 2020
It’s not ‘news’ that handwashing prevents the spread of disease, from the common cold to the novel coronavirus. But it might take a bit of creativity to transform our best intentions to keep our hands clean into the act of regular handwashing. Behavioral scientists weigh in on strategies to do just this. DPA/PICTURE ALLIANCE VIA GETTY IMAGES.

The need for handwashing isn’t new in this time of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but it is more important now than ever that we keep our hands clean to prevent the continued spread of the virus. We all know we should wash our hands regularly in order to achieve this, but intention doesn’t necessarily translate into action. And given the shockingly low historic rate of handwashing in general (an average adherence of 38.7% among healthcare workers according to the World Health Organization), it seems fair to say that we don’t wash our hands as reliably as we know we should. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to spread, behavioral scientists have risen to the occasion to offer suggestions that can help us act on our best intentions to wash our hands: not just regularly, but correctly.

The solutions in this compilation fall into seven categories: reminders, pleasure, disgust, commitment, bundling, visual cues, and virtue.

Set Timely and Salient Reminders

Ovul Sezer decorated her bathroom with streamers, balloons and birthday bags as a timely and salient visual reminder to wash her hands for 20 seconds while singing the Happy Birthday song twice.

Set salient (and amusing) in-context reminders. By now you’ve heard about singing happy birthday twice to get to the recommended 20 seconds of handwashing, but how will you make sure you remember at the right time and place? Ovul Sezer decorated her bathroom with streamers, balloons and birthday bags as a timely and salient visual reminder.

Make out-of-context reminders salient by placing them in your visual field. Jonathan Corbin recommends writing “WASH YOUR HANDS!” on sticky notes and putting them in areas where you generally have to wash your hands after engaging in an activity in that area (such as the kitchen, dining room or front door of your house). Or, use technology to prompt you at regular intervals (similar to the Apple Watch’s “stand” feature), you could set up recurring reminders to prompt you to wash your hands.

Use evidence-based posters. The Behavioral Insights Team in the UK recently conducted a study testing the effectiveness of various posters intended to encourage handwashing, and found that those with bright, clear designs and minimal text with an emphasis on the…

Aline Holzwarth

Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. alineholzwarth.com