The effects of perceived social norms on handwashing behaviour in students

Dickie, Rachel and Rasmussen, Susan and Cain, Rachel and Williams, Lynn and Mackay, William (2017) The effects of perceived social norms on handwashing behaviour in students. Psychology, Health and Medicine. ISSN 1354-8506 (

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University students may be at increased risk of infection because of living and working in close proximity to one another. Hand washing is widely considered the most effective method of preventing the spread of infectious illness. Exploring the determinants of hand washing is vital to the development of interventions to increase this behaviour. A survey based on Social Norms Theory assessed hand washing frequency and perceptions of peer hand washing in 255 students at a Scottish University. Participants reported their own hand washing frequency and rate, and how often they thought their peers washed their hands in particular circumstances, to determine whether misperceptions around hand washing exist in a UK student population, and whether these influence the behaviour of individuals. Gender was found to be a significant determinant of hand washing frequency as females reported washing their hands significantly more often than males. Participants also believed they washed their hands significantly more frequently than their peers. Perceived peer hand washing frequency was significantly correlated with participants’ own behaviour. This effect was seen in overall hand washing and in food, waste and illness-related hand washing. These results suggest perceived social norms around hand washing have a consistent and robust association with individual behaviour. An intervention based on Social Norms Theory may, therefore, be effective in increasing hand washing in a student population, reducing infection spread and illness rates within this group. Future research might test the effectiveness of a social norms intervention in other settings which carry an increased risk of infection spread, for example schools, hospitals and care homes.


Dickie, Rachel, Rasmussen, Susan ORCID logoORCID:, Cain, Rachel, Williams, Lynn ORCID logoORCID: and Mackay, William;