The Theory and Practice of Handwashing Habits

At the 2014 UNC Water and Health Conference, the USAID funded WASHplus Project’s Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor, Orlando Hernandez, coordinated a panel session entitled “The Theory and Practice of Handwashing Habits.”  Organized by WASHplus and institutional partners WSP, LSHTM and PPPHW, the panel session focused on the seven principles of habit formation, explored how they could be applied to the handwashing arena, and discussed applications where enabling products have been developed and tried as cues to guide practices and habit formation. Potential implications for future handwashing programs were discussed, beyond the mere creation of cues. A summary of the panel session is provided below:

Diarrheal disease accounts for 11% of child mortality worldwide. Yet, there is a cost-effective way of reducing diarrheal disease in children under five and in turn reduce child mortality: handwashing with soap at critical junctures, especially among caretakers, grouped into two large categories, before food handling and after contact with fecal matter. Handwashing with soap at such junctures can reduce diarrheal incidence by up to 43%.

Handwashing promotion has been an important part of many WASH interventions and such programs have been able to increase handwashing practices among target populations using a variety of approaches. More recently, these approaches rely on conceptual framework that argue in favor of using psychosocial determinants and emotional appeals. Such frameworks have their origin in reflective psychology which suggests that behavior is volitional and guided by factors internal to the individual.

Handwashing programs constructed on reflective psychology theories and models have proven effective to generate behavior change. However, is there any evidence that they have been useful in helping to maintain the practice overtime? Research on the sustainability of handwashing practices overtime is inconclusive. Yet, interpretations of findings overtime suggests that factors in the context in which individuals behave may be partially responsible for their perdurance.

A couple of studies argue in favor of the presence of water and soap as contributing factors to handwashing sustainability. Such suggestions point in the direction of the science of habits which proposes that factors initiating practices are not the same as those that maintain them. Whereas reflective psychological models may explain the practice of new behaviors, reflexive models offer an explanation for keeping them alive.

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