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Can altruism be a better motivator than self-interest?

Why is it so hard to get doctors, nurses and others in patient care to adequately disinfect their hands?

At least part of the problem is psychological. People in general—but health care professionals in particular—suffer from cognitive biases that skew their judgment about risk. Research has shown, for example, that hospital workers maintain an “illusion of invulnerability.” They tend to be overconfident about their own immunity to germs, ignoring evidence that is threatening to their personal health or sense of well-being. In addition, their memories are often biased: They easily recall times when they didn’t wash but nevertheless avoided sickness, and they forget the instances when they did fall ill.

If part of the dilemma is cognitive, why not try a cognitive intervention?

The results were consistent with the earlier findings. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, adherence to hand washing guidelines increased significantly when the signs emphasized patient risk and vulnerability, but not when the signs emphasized personal risk. In short, it appears that altruism is a better motivator than self-interest.


Wray Herbert is the author of, On Second Thought:Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits .