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Handwashing purifies, study finds

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DIFFERENT cultures have long recognized the transcendent power of ritual handwashing. From Shintoism to Judaism to Hinduism to Islam, major religious traditions require handwashing 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 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 PhD 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 got wet but who had watched others wash scored in between, demonstrating the power 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 "pro-social 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 handwashing video made them feel 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 handwashing video on YouTube (they do exist) might just help you shake off those feelings of regret.

-- Foreign Policy

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2014 A6

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