The Psychology of Flossing

By Aaron Strickland, D.D.S. on May 31, 2017



Ah, flossing. Why is it so hard to remember to floss? We know it’s good for us, and it only takes a few minutes. Flossing removes food particles from between the teeth, which helps prevent cavities. It helps eliminate bad breath, and it removes plaque from areas a toothbrush can’t reach. It helps strengthen and maintain gum health. So why wouldn’t we floss?

It’s interesting to note that why so many people forget to floss is rooted in psychology.

The pychology of a habit


In the early 1900s, dental hygiene was so bad, it was said to be a national security risk. People weren’t brushing their teeth, of course, and around this time is when Americans first began to consume sugary, processed foods.

A toothpaste campaign forever changed America’s dental hygiene habits when it told people, “Just run your tongue across your teeth. You’ll feel a film – that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay. Why would you keep a dingy film on your teeth? Our toothpaste removes the film!”

Psychologists over the last hundred years have asserted that in order to establish a habit, one must first create a craving for that particular habit. To do this, you need the following:

  • A simple and obvious cue
  • A clearly defined reward

With this campaign, the psychology of habit formation was created for Americans' dental hygiene habits. A simple and obvious cue – when people ran their tongue across their teeth, that became a cue for them to brush. A clearly defined reward – removing the film on their teeth became rewarding. With that, the toothpaste ad had created a craving. If people forgot to brush, they weren’t rewarded with the “tingling clean feeling.”

Developing a craving - and habit - to remember to floss


So, with flossing, the problem is that there is no instant gratification – no “clearly defined reward.” It’s hard for us to see that it’s working. We already know that flossing is good for us, though, so how can we make this a habit? The answer – develop a craving.

First, start by giving yourself a simple and obvious cue. Decide when and where you’ll floss every day – before bed, in the morning, etc. You might consider placing a blank post-it note on the mirror as a reminder to floss. This is your cue.

And add a clearly defined reward, such as a favorite type of floss. For children, a sticker chart for daily flossing is a great way to establish this clearly defined reward. Flossing stimulates the gums, which don’t often get a lot of attention, and feels like a massage, which is why you’ll crave it again.

Make flossing easy for yourself. Keep floss stashed everywhere – your desk at work, in the car, in your purse. That way when the thought (craving) hits, you’ll have no excuse not to floss. Consider investing in a flossing stick, or smaller plastic-handled flossers.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If you forget one day, it’s ok! It’s not all or nothing. If you just start by flossing once a week, you’re sure to crave the feeling again.

So, to create the craving - and eventually the habit – first establish a cue, and let the reward speak for itself. You’ll be flossing more and more often, and eventually it will be something automatic that you don’t have to remind yourself not to do.

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