bathrooms, hand-washing and behavior change

Ever since I read Sanjoy Mahajan’s post, “Why Are Restroom Hand-Washing Signs By the Sinks?“, I have used it to illustrate how important context can be in trying to affect behavior. In the post Mahajan asks why hand-washing signs are posted above the sinks, where people who are not washing their hands are less likely to see them.

In Cooperative Extension, we are in the behavior change business. If we are going to help people be healthier, help communities thrive, help farmers be more productive and help kids be successful, we are going to have to affect their behavior.

Unfortunately much of the time we act like we are not in the behavior change business, but instead in the information transfer business.¬†Many Extension educators operate under the assumption that information=behavior change, but the idea that assumption is challenged by a lot of research (here’s one example) and by the fortune cookie fortune that Jean Clements quoted in her article, “Results? Behavior Change!” The fortune read¬†“Knowing and not doing is equal to not knowing.”

If we are going to affect behavior, pushing information out to people devoid of context is not an effective way to do it. The right message, at the right time, in the right place just might have more impact. Information alone will not result in effective long-term behavior change, but paying attention to context can be a first step to thinking more deeply about how we can really affect behavior.

The good news? I saw the sign below posted on a bathroom door, the proper context for the forgetful and negligent. Let’s follow this facilities lead and start thinking hard about behavior change and stop posting hand-washing signs by the sinks.

Hand-washing sign on door