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Behavioral Economics, Nudges and Handwashing

Posted by: blackwellc | July 12, 2017 | No Comment |

Student’s Bachelor’s Essay Yields Practical Policy Advice

We all know we should wash our hands regularly. Yet studies suggest as few as 5% of Americans wash their hands in compliance with the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines.

Zach Sturman, a Political Science major/Economics minor, and Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, Adjunct Professor of Economics, wanted to improve handwashing rates, and they seem to have done it. Sturman, who will enter Vanderbilt University’s joint J.D./Ph.D. program in Law and Economics in the fall, became interested in behavioral economics while taking an economics course with Professor Goya-Tocchetto. The two subsequently teamed up to design a ‘nudge’ – a non-binding behavioral cue –  to encourage more handwashing.

Sturman started the project by measuring baseline handwashing rates in the Beatty Center restrooms. Don’t worry – he didn’t skulk around the bathrooms watching people wash their hands! Instead, using infrared people monitors, he and Professor Goya-Tocchetto carefully counted the number of persons who used each restroom, and the amount of soap they consumed. From this data they could compute average soap consumption, a proxy for handwashing. (Note: Consistent with previous research, they found that men washed their hands less than women – let’s work on that, guys!)

Once the baseline was established, Sturman was ready to see how his ‘nudges’ would work. First he tried posting smiley faces on the mirrors in the restrooms. There was little effect, so he tried a second ‘nudge’ – arrows glued to the floor leading from the toilets to the sinks. Presto! This simple intervention increased soap usage by 15%! Consistent with previous studies, Sturman’s work showed that a simple, cheap and easy-to-implement cue could be used to positively change behavior.

If you are interested in learning more about Sturman’s project, his article for the College Today is available here:


Zach Sturman (far left) presents his research at the William Moore Student Research Conference

under: Students

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