13 Mar 2020

Touching your Face: Why do we do it and how to stop

From First Up, 5:46 am on 13 March 2020

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, we're all being told to avoid touching our face to stop the spread of the virus. 

But it's much easier said than done. In California a health official was videoed licking her finger straight after emploring the public to not touch their face. 

So why do we touch our faces and is it easy to break the habit? We put those questions to behavioural psychologist Dr Sarah Cowie from the University of Auckland.

Why do we touch our face?

There are lot of reasons why we do it. The most obvious one is that we have an itch we need to scratch. But also, we seem to touch our faces more when we feel anxious or when we are concentrating on something or trying to keep our attention on a task. There's a school of though that says this face touching might have a social function that might show that you are sort of self-aware. There's also a school of thought that says this could be some sort of leftover behaviour from primate grooming that's just kind of come through evolution. So nobody knows quite why we touch our face for these reasons, but there are definitely some environmental triggers that tend to occur before we are likely to touch our face. 

What are those triggers? 

There are three main triggers. One of those is that when people are concentrating on something, and particularly when you're trying to keep your attention focused on a task, often we find people touch their faces at that kind of point. When you're feeling a little bit anxious, that's also another situation where people tend to be touching their faces. And then for very practical reasons, if you're itching or need to adjust your lipstick or whatever. That one is probably a little bit more conscious but again, a lot of the time we'll just brush hair out of the way or itch your brow without as much as a thought.  

How do we break the habit?

It's a little difficult, because the thing with habits is that very often we don't realise we're doing them, so they are actions that occur without a conscious thought. And it turns out that we probably touch our face somewhere more than 23 times an hour. And if you think about all the time your remember touching your face, you might think that's not possible, I don't touch my face that much. But people touch their face a lot. Of course, it becomes worse when you are thinking about it and trying not to touch it. So habits are tricky things to break, particularly when you have a long history of engaging in those habits. 

When I think about not touching my face, it's like it becomes more itchy? It's like it wants me to touch it, is that natural? 

It certainly seems like it is. The thing is to try and shift the focus from not doing it to being more aware of those environmental triggers that are likely to make you want to touch your face. So rather than going through and saying 'okay, today I am not going to touch my face', shift focus and think, well can I be a little bit more aware of my surroundings and what I'm going through, and then I can recognise when I'm likely to be touching my face and hopefully redirect that behaviour. 
How can we encourage children to not touch their face?

So part of it is recognising some of those behaviours are not behaviours anybody is consciously aware of doing. Trying to make sure your environment isn't overly stressful, but also just using the normal kinds of techniques and approaches you would use for any sort of behaviour with your children or indeed anybody around you. For example, incompatible behaviours, so getting children to do something else with their hands so they can't touch be touching their face. Having things like stress balls, or even encouraging people to put their hands in their pockets or play a game with your hands. Obviously it's not possible in all sorts of situation, but it's a good starting point. So, if you're encouraging any sort of behaviour, rather than just saying 'don't do that', or explaining not to do it, reward when it doesn't happen, reward when you're doing something else. So, just some of the strategies you'd use for beating other behaviour. 

Should we all buy fidget spinners and stress balls?

There are whole bunch of really strange things coming out to help, like you can get a wristband that vibrates when it seems like you're moving your hands towards your face, or there is an app that tracks your movements and tells you off when it seems as if you are tracking towards your face. Some of those are towards making you aware of the situations where you're likely to be touching your face. but the other thing is stress balls and fidget and spinners and anything that you can do with your hands - take up knitting - but something that's incompatible with touching your face.