What is it with not washing your hands?

Despite our descent into a flu armageddon of mild aches and pain, there are some who insist on poor hygiene – but why?

After washing my hands in a public lavatory on Wednesday, I carefully placed a paper towel over the door handle before going out. Next day, in a different public lavatory, the same thing happened. And, what is worse, I was muttering to myself on both occasions. All very disturbing.

Admittedly, my behaviour in each case was influenced by the sight of men failing to wash their hands after relieving themselves. Both men looked respectable and well past the age when offending against conventional wisdom loses its intrinsic attractiveness. I've seen this kind of thing before, of course, and simply shrugged it off as one shrugs off the million other routine examples of slovenliness this country's inhabitants seem, increasingly, to delight in exhibiting.

But this time, something snapped inside me. Time for action. And so I muttered, washed my hands, grabbed an extra paper towel, and muttered some more.

But what is it with not washing your hands? What is that about? Is it a time-saving thing? A fear of public lavatories? A fear of water?

Which bit of humanity's much-prized grey matter is it that overrides the cocktail of rational and instinctual impulses prompting us to keep ourselves clean? If we are children, our parents require us to do it. If we are religious, our rituals require it. And even if we're neither of those things, but nonetheless have at our disposal the modest skills of reading and listening, common sense requires us to do it.

And yet, according to a recent survey, easily 10% admit to routinely neglecting to wash our hands on leaving the lavatory.

But that's nothing. As everyone knows, the admissions rate among the polled is not high. According to Val Curtis, director of London University's Hygiene Centre and the co-founder of the admirably named Global Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, traces of faeces could be found on the hands of 25% of the users of a motorway service station.

As the world descends into an armageddon of mild aches and pain, the clean-handed among us can welcome the fact that our likely failure to die in our thousands will be accompanied by a wave of helpful information about the public health benefits of washing our hands. We stand to be told, as if we didn't know already, that hand-washing could reduce the spread of diseases such as the flu by over 50%, that millions of lives, billions of working days, trillions of pounds could be saved worldwide if only the dirty minority would take the trouble to rub a little soap and water on their hands before leaving the toilet.

But it won't do any good. Because it is not lack of knowledge that prevents people doing what they know to be the right thing. In hospitals, for example, despite years of poster campaigns and clear evidence relating killer superbugs to insufficient hand-washing, doctors and nurses are routinely observed to be failing to comply with hygiene standards. As late as 2006, a mere 12% of hospital workers were found to be keeping their hands as clean as regulations demand. And yet in hospitals we're not dealing with people who ought to know better, but with people who do know better.

Aristotle used the term akrasia to describe man's ability to wilfully ignore his better judgment. Most of his discussion concerns the way pleasure prospects and other emotional stimuli interfere with rational judgment. But in a case such as the present, what kind of pleasure is involved in not washing your hands?

It is not uncommon for the husbands of fastidious wives to take a bizarre pleasure in wearing their underpants for two days on the trot.

Perhaps, then, it has something to do with protest. Rather in the manner that people with low self-esteem neglect themselves, or maltreated pets – and sometimes prisoners – leave dirty protests, perhaps the impulse to bear traces of waste matter on one's hands is a symptom of social malaise? But I think it runs even deeper than that.

An excellent paper by Curtis argues that hygiene behaviours have evolved in all species, and that biological impulses are the cause rather than the effect of social phenomena such as ritualised cleaning and public health education. We are hard-wired, in that execrable cybernetic parlance, to wash our hands after going to the loo.

Perhaps, then, the impulse not to wash your hands works on the same level? Perhaps the middle-aged, sports jacket-clad, sink-wary gentlemen I keep meeting are the unconscious chosen ones, selected by fate as the ministers of species self-harm? I suspect that as individuals they impart from the experience something of the secret agent's quiet smugness, but in reality they are merely symptoms, anonymous expressions of mankind's rising self-disgust.

Akratic behaviour, meanwhile, is universal. Perhaps instead of trying to master ourselves completely, we should simply try to divert our akratic impulses in more harmless directions. I, for example, will spend much of the coming weekend watching snooker when I should be working, or at least getting in shape for the London triathlon. I suggest others do the same. As an incentive, men with dirty hands need only google "snooker female" to find out who is refereeing the final.

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