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A Fresh Start

Washing up after a failure can make you more optimistic about trying again

Author Jacqueline Detwiler


The phrase “I’ve washed my hands of it” may be more than just a useful saying. After you fail at a task, cleaning up in real life might make you feel more positive about giving it another shot in the future. A recent study from researcher Kai Kaspar at the University of Osnabrück, Germany, forced subjects to fail at an anagram-solving task. Just six of the 25 anagrams the subjects tried to unscramble were solvable; the others were nonsense. After failing, the subjects either washed their hands or did not, and then reported how well they thought they’d do if they tried a second time. People who washed their hands were significantly more optimistic about their future success than people who didn’t, although they didn’t perform any better when they actually tried again. In fact, the handwashers did worse than the non-handwashers on the second task, in which all 25 anagrams were solvable, leading Kaspar to think that the extra positive vibes may have eliminated any need the handwashers felt to prove themselves after bungling the first attempt. Ah well, at least they won’t catch the flu.

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