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Tuesday, 8th December 2020

Nudging people in the right direction – using psychology to increase handwashing in schools

By Lisa Bass & Luke Capper

Using psychology to change our behaviour is nothing new - loyalty cards keep us shopping at the same supermarkets, eyes above rubbish bins remind us that people are watching that we don’t throw rubbish on the ground, and since recently, brightly coloured circles two metres apart in shops show us exactly how far we should be standing apart. Gradually over time, all of these things make us behave in certain ways without us having to think about it anymore. Over recent years the learnings and psychological techniques underpinning this thinking have been incorporated into how we plan and deliver projects in International development. A few years ago, SEED decided to focus more on these in our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) work, particularly how we encourage people to wash their hands.


WASH nudges - handprints - on a tap at a SEED schoolThe use of ‘behavioural insights’ can play an important part in using subtle, and usually subconscious, ways to guide people to do certain things. These are called ‘nudges’, and the construction team have been thinking about how they can ‘nudge’ people to wash their hands after using the toilet.

Starting with our work in schools, we started to think about how we could guide primary school children from the latrine to the handwashing station and to wash their hands. To do this we started by looking at the use of colour and painting hands on the handwashing station as well as placing the station in a suitable location near to the latrines. This has been piloted in a number of schools and this has now become part of SEEDs approach to handwashing in schools.

However, recently the team met to discuss what more could be done to ‘nudge’ people to wash their hands at critical moments, as although we felt this was a good first step, we weren’t convinced that this on its own was a strong enough nudge.

Trying new nudges

Rather than focusing on having a single nudge as is the case with having a painted hand mural, the team wanted to develop a series of nudges which would aim to subconsciously guide people from the toilet to the handwashing station to wash their hands.

Standing with our back to the toilet and thinking about where we would naturally walk, the team developed a rough idea of the most intrinsic route you might take from the latrine to the proposed handwashing station. A great ‘nudge’ in the right direction! However, how did we know we had this right? The team decided that instead of second guessing where people would walk, the latrines would be left in use for one month with the current water source. At the end of this period the team would return to look at the ground and the natural paths made by people as they exited the latrines. By double checking this with spending some time observing peoples routes from the latrines to the handwashing station, they would have a good idea of where the natural pathways for people were. These ‘pathways of desire’ are used to guide planning in towns and campuses all over the world – so why not in a school yard in rural Madagascar?

Once we saw the pathways of desire, we would then look at where along this to best place the handwashing station, knowing that this would mean that people would naturally walk towards it.

Bush pineapples: Spiky obstacles, or psychological nudges?

But how to strengthen the nudge? One idea is to plant bush pineapple plants along the path. These spiky plants are low maintenance, grow in the bush and the leaves are a useful resource. Until these grow, the team are going paint stones bright colours and outline the path leading from the toilet to the handwashing station. For the first few weeks of the handwashing station being built, we are even looking at making bunting to hang from the toilets to the handwashing station to mark the way overhead, as well as the stones and plants at ground level.

This is all new and unknown territory, and we don’t know which of this will work to nudge people into handwashing, or if we will have to rethink how we use what we know about human behaviour in our projects to promote community health messages. However, what is certain is that taking time to understand why we do what we do and how we can use these insights in our work is going to be playing a central role in our projects in the future.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the use of nudges and their benefits in the field of WASH then be sure to visit our close friend and partner - Sanitation Learning Hub. 

The Sanitation Learning Hub (SLH) is a participatory and action-oriented programme aimed at promoting and facilitating timely, relevant and actionable learning and research in the Sanitation and Hygiene sector. This includes work on behaviour changehandwashing and community-led approaches.