Sometimes, we end up focusing on fruitless pursuits that we should really just let go of. Well, the next time that you find yourself consciously aware of being in such a situation, try washing your hands. According to scientists from the University of Toronto, doing so helps us to give up old goals and start pursuing new ones.

Previous research had already indicated that hand-washing helps people to mentally separate themselves from previous psychological experiences, such as feelings of guilt associated with immoral behaviour. PhD marketing student Ping Dong and Prof. Spike W. S. Lee were interested in seeing if that "cleaning of the slate" effect could be applied to other mental process, too.

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In order to find out, they took a group of test subjects and drew their attention to specific goals by playing word games with them, or having them take a short survey – the process is known as "priming." The participants were then each presented with an antiseptic handwipe. Half of them were asked to just evaluate it without using it, while the other half were asked to actually use it to clean their hands.

In subsequent testing, the subjects that used the wipe were less likely to act in ways that were based on the primed goals. "For people who were primed with a health goal, for example, using the handwipe reduced their subsequent tendency to behave in a healthy manner," says Dong. "They were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over a granola bar."

Additionally, it was also easier to get that group to focus on new goals.

A paper on the research was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Source: University of Toronto