Three Strategies for Ethical Influence

By Brett Beasley

Studies of hand washing hold powerful lessons about what it takes to motivate others to act ethically.

Hand Washing

"For your country right now and for the war that we're in against Covid, I'm asking you to do four simple things: wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, and be smart about crowds." —CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield

A little soap and some warm running water. Isn't it strange that these widely available, low-cost items have emerged as two of the most powerful weapons in the fight against a global pandemic?

Unfortunately, there is a weak link in the chain that connects soap and water to public health, and that weak link is us. It takes consistent, repeated, action on our part in order for soap and water to be effective, and these behaviors, as Dr. Robert Redfield indicates, are too often lacking.

Hand washing is so important—and so difficult to enforce—that some companies and hospitals have resorted to using camera surveillance, RFID sensors, and other high-tech add-ons to bully employees and health care professionals into washing their hands. But these tactics have their limits. Not only do they turn a low-cost solution into a high-cost solution, they can also backfire. If employees experience surveillance as coercive, studies show they are likely to comply less, not more, with hand washing guidelines.

Meanwhile, the toll of inconsistent hand washing keeps adding up. We pay the price in the form of illness, absenteeism, and death. Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated that better hand washing could save a million lives a year.

If hand washing can have such a profound impact on our health, our organizations, and our communities, then how do we influence people to do it more consistently? Fortunately, behavioral scientists have been interested in hand washing for several decades. Their solutions are not simple or easy to implement. However, they reveal a great deal about what motivates us to do the right thing, and they offer insights for communication, influence, and ethical leadership in the 21st century.

Just the Facts?

One common approach to motivating behaviors like hand washing involves spreading the word and raising awareness. We can imagine a message like this one, for example, posted near soap dispensers and hand sanitizing stations:

hand washing fact

Researchers observe that merely providing additional education or information does not induce more people to wash their hands. While it is essential to know why hand washing matters, most studies find that their participants already understand the role that hand washing can play in preventing infection.

The problem, behavioral scientists point out, is not a lack of facts but a lack of feedback and accountability. They advise us to improve the faulty "choice architecture" that shapes our hygiene decisions. Sinks, for example, tend to be located inside bathrooms. This means that those making the decision to wash or not to wash do so while they are isolated or invisible to others. They receive little to no immediate feedback about their behavior or about the behavior of others.

For this reason, behavioral scientists have recommended adding hand sanitizing stations outside bathrooms. This serves two purposes. First, it taps into the power of positive peer pressure. Public, visible hand sanitizing stations provide a sense of accountability and help us create a set of shared norms. "Here," they seem to suggest, "everyone washes their hands." Second, additional hand sanitizing stations also serve as a visible cue or reminder, meeting us in the moment we need them with a convenient, low-effort solution.

The Self-Interest Trap

Once the right education and infrastructure are in place, it becomes easier for people to make the right decision. Still, research reveals that the right moral messaging can lead to further increases in hand washing. Unfortunately, we often miss out on this added benefit because the messages we send about hand washing rely not on the "better angels of our nature," but merely on self-interest. 

Consider an ingenious study of hand washing among medical doctors by Adam Grant (Penn) and David Hoffman (UNC). Grant and Hoffman got permission from a hospital to modify the signs attached to its soap and hand sanitizing gel dispensers. On some of the dispensers, Grant and Hoffman left a message developed by the hospital's administrators. It read, simply:

Hospital Sign

Then they came up with two signs of their own. One emphasized self-interested reasons for good hygiene. It read:

Hand Washing You

The final sign focused the doctors' attention away from themselves and toward others. It read:

Hand Washing Patients

Grant and Hoffman simply allowed their signs to influence doctors' behaviors and returned after two weeks to weigh the bags of soap and hand sanitizing gel in each dispenser. They found that the other-focused message had the biggest impact. It caused doctors to use 45% more hand hygiene product. The self-focused message, on the other hand, appeared to backfire. It influenced doctors to use even less hand hygiene product than the hospital's message.

Put it in Practice: The Three P's

Prosociality. The important takeaway from Grant and Hoffman's study is that we often motivate important behaviors poorly because we do not ask individuals to look beyond themselves. By focusing only on self-interested motivations, we fail to change self-interested behaviors. Instead, we should recognize that human beings are not only selfish (pro-self) creatures. We are also "other-ish" (prosocial) by nature.

Positive Emotion. Just as we often overlook human beings' prosocial nature, we also overlook the power of positive emotion. In fact, studies have shown that when we attempt to motivate others to act ethically, we most often rely on negative emotions. For example, we issue warnings or threats or we attempt to shame those who don't comply. And yet, these strategies often prove less successful than those that rely on positive emotions. For example, one recent study compared the effects of pride and shame on the decisions we make about the environment. Those participants who thought about how proud they would feel after an environmentally friendly choice were much more likely to make the choice than participants who thought about how much shame they would feel if they did not make it.

Principles. Sometimes we fail to motivate moral behaviors for an even simpler reason: We fail to discuss or describe them in moral terms. However, research has shown that morality itself is an extremely powerful motivator. One recent study showed that simply recognizing the moral basis for an action makes us more committed and consistent in performing that action and less susceptible to arguments against it.

As the social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus says, "our minds are trained—or rather contaminated" to think human beings are driven only by self-interest. In order to encourage ethical behavior, we need to unlearn some of this training. We need to appeal to the "better angels of our nature." And when we do, we will find that we are more effective than ever at influencing those around us.

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