The Psychology Behind Oral Hygiene

Woman using dental floss
Photo by Wavebreakmedia –

For thousands of years, people did not brush their teeth. These ‘ancient’ people didn’t have access to toothbrushes or toothpaste to care for their oral hygiene. Yet their teeth were without any dental problems or cavities. They were effectively immune to oral health problems, an attribute which is a far cry for people of today.

There are numerous reasons for this. The most important of which is that their diet consisted of natural and unprocessed foods such as vegetables and fruits.  These natural foods did not contain preservatives or chemicals, so instead of weakening the structural integrity of their teeth, the food made their teeth healthier and more resistant to dental infections.

The natural foods contained a high amount of fiber which naturally served to keep their teeth clean by removing food and bacteria from their teeth. You could argue that their food served as a makeshift toothbrush of sorts. All they required to clean their teeth and keep them a whiter shade of pale was to just keep eating.

This is no longer the case for most people because their foods are now deficient in vitamins, minerals and fiber. To make things worse, the foods come loaded with chemical preservatives, which foster the conditions the growth of bacteria.

This created the need for people to brush their teeth for oral hygiene

Most people remember to brush their teeth at least twice every day, but flossing, which contributes to the other half of oral hygiene care takes a beat seat. People tend to forget flossing their teeth. Presumably, because it’s typically harder than brushing their teeth and inserting a piece of string in between the crevices of their teeth creates an icky sensation, a feeling which they would rather avoid.

Brushing your teeth is simpler and requires much less of an effort. The ensuing fresh breath serves as instant gratification for them. This is enough for most people to continue brushing their teeth as a daily habit. But the same cannot be said of flossing their teeth because the results are not immediate.

Our brain is conditioned to only perform actions which serve immediate rewards and prefers to defer those actions to a later time which give rewards over a long period of time. Flossing is a habit which will only give them gratification 10 or 20 years down the line, a time period most people don’t have the patience to contend with and tend to forego the process altogether.

So why do people continue to brush their teeth?

When people spend long periods of time without brushing their teeth, a small coat of plaque begins to grow around the teeth. This coat of plaque reminds them of the cleaner teeth they had just a few hours ago. They begin to crave after the cleaner teeth. These are all the cues they need to pick up the brush and clean their teeth until this layer of plaque is removed.

This is not the case for flossing because there is no immediate reward. It doesn’t feel like it works. It feels like a waste of time, energy and effort. They could have spent all this time watching TV or reading a comic.

But scientists have proven that flossing will play a definitive role in preventing teeth decay, preventing teeth from falling out, preventing gum disease and keeping the teeth healthy. All of this will, in turn, save people expensive dental trips and an unimaginable amount of pain.

How to develop that habit?

It’s clear that developing a habit of flossing your teeth is vital to the long-term wellbeing of your oral hygiene. Researchers are of the opinion that in order to develop this habit among both adults and children alike, you have to trick the brain into autopilot mode. This is done by creating a clearly defined reward system in place, something which the brain can look forward to on a daily basis.

Creating a reward system in place

This reward could range from the flavor of the floss to rewarding yourself with an appetizing snack after flossing. This reward system will eventually condition the brain into autopilot mode.

Making it easy to floss

Now obviously this reward is relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things and one can easily run out of motivation, especially when there is a dearth of floss in the house. The struggle to retrieve floss from a far-off location in exchange for trivial reward will quickly kill this habit. For this reason, it is important to collect a large supply of floss and keep them stashed around the house, so the brain doesn’t have to struggle.

This could hopefully develop a habit of flossing one’s teeth on a regular basis.


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