by Adria Karlsson

“It took a coronavirus outbreak to remind us that we touch our faces way too many times. And cutting down on that will help stop the spread of the virus, health officials say. In 2015, a Sydney university observed medical students on video and recorded how many times they touched their faces. Each of the 26 future doctors under observation touched their faces an average 23 times per hour. Nearly half of those times — 44% — involved contact with their eyes, nose or mouth.”  — from CNN, 03/09/2020

Don’t touch your face. It’s everywhere. On the front pages of the major news outlets, shared widely on social media, and even turned into gifs and memes in record time. COVID-19 has the whole country finally following the decades-old advice to wash our hands. And trying not to touch our faces. This is all well and good, but as any good behavior consultant will tell you, not doing something is a very hard thing to do. 

We, as animals, like to behave. We like to do things. We do best when told what to do, not what not to do. When we don’t want dogs jumping on us, telling them not to is often ineffective and frustrating, but reinforcing them for keeping their feet on the floor is a recipe for success. Studying to avoid failing is a stressful and often lackluster task, but studying a subject because it interests you or the final product will earn you a recommendation or promotion changes the emotional response and investment a person puts into it immensely. Positive reinforcement — getting something good for performing a desired behavior — is scientifically proven to create lasting behavior changes in everything from bomb-sniffing bees to unruly dogs, and even elite athletes. When we’re thinking about how to stop ourselves from touching our faces, then, we should be thinking about how to use positive reinforcement to achieve this goal. 

Our other option is hoping everyone will continue to avoid touching their faces in order to avoid an illness they may never come in contact with or feel the symptoms of. This type of training is called negative punishment. It’s when an animal reduces a behavior to avoid a negative outcome. It can be both stressful and hard to maintain without an actual, perceptible punishing consequence. So while it may work for a week, or two, or as long as COVID-19 is making headlines, it’s unlikely to work in the long run. 

How do we change this behavior for the long term? How do we keep people healthy? We reinforce an alternative behavior. This type of training has a long track record of success without the stress and without the use of a continuing threat of punishment. What does this look like? 

First, identify an alternative behavior. When walking down the street, put your hands in your pockets. Can you keep something in your pocket to remind you that your hands are there? A stress ball? A set of keys? Something to help you notice if you move your hands. Second, identify a reinforcer. Maybe for you, pride in successfully getting where you’re going with your hands still in your pockets is enough. Maybe that isn’t enough for you — if so, what’s a candy that you like? A jolly rancher? Lollipop? If you really want to up the ante, use something like that and then eat it when you successfully arrive at your destination without taking your hands out of your pockets. What a person finds reinforcing is very individual and figuring that out is up to you!

There are other pieces to changing our behavior, too, beyond just “not touching our faces.” One of those is paying attention to things in the environment that trigger you to touch your face, consciously or not. Maybe scratching the bridge of your nose is something you just *have to do* as part of concentrating, so much so that you do it without thinking, or consciously restraining yourself from doing it feels terrible for you and disrupts your day. If that’s the case, how can you think ahead, so that doing that behavior isn’t risky? Can you reinforce a squirt of hand sanitizer, or washing your hands before you start work? Maybe you keep a dish of candy next to the sink that you can’t touch until your hands are clean. Maybe you just never open your laptop until you’ve sanitized your hands. Give yourself benchmarks in the day — doorways you walk through, apps you have to open, elevators you come out of — make these the antecedents (the cues or reminders) for you to perform these hand washing behaviors. 

While we may not be able to always avoid touching our faces or always have freshly washed hands, can we avoid touching other people or surfaces where the virus may be present? Instead of a hand shake, what’s your alternative behavior? How will you reinforce it? For some people, it seems to be flashing a Spock symbol — and maybe the consternation of those around you is the reinforcement. For others it’s enough that the other person acknowledges and appreciates the social distancing behavior of a wave. Elevator buttons, door knobs, shared counter tops… all of these can be tough to avoid, but think through your day. Which things can be approached differently? How will you acknowledge your successful behavior when you do so? 

We can do better as a society at stopping these viruses, but it’s going to take changes to our behavior. And behavior is changed easily and successfully for the long term with positive reinforcement for alternative behaviors. 

Adria Karlsson is a dog and cat behavior consultant with a background in applied behavior analysis. Currently she’s a content editor, aspiring picture book author, and managing the behavior of 5 kids, 2 dogs, 2 cats, and one very long-lived gerbil.