Do you think changing the social norm will promote hand-washing?

There’s plenty of evidence that hand-washing substan­tially reduces the incidence of preventable illnesses.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories in which we asked UB faculty mem­bers to think big: If they had unlimited time, money and persuasion techniques, what audacious idea from their fields would they want to implement today?


Reprinted from At Buffalo

Published September 23, 2016

The problem: The spread of infectious disease

The big idea: Cultivate a worldwide hand-washing habit.

Pavani Ram is co-leader for UB’s Community for Global Health Equity and an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health.

There’s plenty of evidence that good hand hygiene substan­tially reduces the incidence of preventable illnesses, including diarrhea, respiratory infections and influenza.

Most people know that they should wash their hands — even my kids know — but they don’t do it. Sure, we might do it when we’re being watched, but we need to wash even when others aren’t around. That means after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, sneezing into your hands or touching an animal, and before and after preparing food.

One of the most effective ways to think about change like this — not just one person at a time, but as a society — is by changing social norms.

For example, my kids saw a DVD at school that says everyone should wear seat belts, and they came home and asked me if I wear my seat belt. That’s become an expectation now — a social norm. We need to create these types of effective campaigns in schools for hand-washing.

That’s on the positive side. We can also seek to change the social norms for people who don’t wash their hands. For example, with smoking, we pushed smokers outside of restaurants and bars and office build­ings. Non-smokers walking by judged their smoking peers negatively. When people don’t wash their hands and the rest of us think “eww,” that will go a long way toward changing the social norms.

These are just a couple ways we can cre­ate social expectations that drive people into behaviors that benefit the public good.