The effects of perceived social norms on handwashing behaviour in students

Rachel Dickie, Susan Rasmussen, Rachel Cain, Lynn Williams, William Mackay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)
75 Downloads (Pure)


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.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychology, Health and Medicine
Early online date7 Jun 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Jun 2017


  • social norms theory
  • handwashing
  • students
  • health behaviour
  • peers
  • gender


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