Clean Body, Clean Mind?

By Ashley Phillips

Dec 5, 2008 10:39am

Columnist Lee Dye reports:

Maybe what the world really needs is a hot, sudsy bath.

Researchers in Great Britain have found that even just washing your hands may make you less harsh in your judgment of others. Their study, published in the journal Psychological Science, asserts that feeling clean can "reduce the perceived seriousness of moral transgressions."

The study, authored by psychologist Simone Schnall and two colleagues at the University of Plymouth, revealed that after washing their hands with soap and water, participants in one experiment judged unethical behavior more acceptable than participants who did not wash their hands.

That’s a good thing, in the sense that more tolerance could make it easier for all of us to live together on this crowded planet. But it could be a bad thing in that cleanliness might make us more prepared to accept injustices and wrongdoing.

One reviewer called it "terrifying" that simply washing your hands might make you blink in the face of evil. The researchers conclude that "cleanliness might indeed feel as if it were next to godliness" because it reflects a human desire to become "physically and morally pure." But the findings also suggest that our decisions on ethical conduct may be a bit shaky.

"Although we like to think that we arrive at decisions on right and wrong based on rational thinking, it’s often incidental feelings that drive the judgment," Schnall said in an e-mail.

The findings build on earlier research by Schnall, as well as a number of other psychologists, into the role of disgust in shaping our opinions on morality.

"In earlier work we showed that when feeling disgusted, as a consequence of being exposed to a foul smell, or sitting at a dirty desk, people find moral transgressions more wrong than when they are in a neutral mood," she said. "It’s as if they conclude ‘that’s disgusting’ when asked to consider how wrong it is to falsify information on one’s resume, when in fact the foul smell, or dirty desk made them feel disgusted. Now, we showed the reverse. When feeling clean, or entertaining thoughts related to cleanliness, people conclude that a behavior (such as falsifying a resume) is ‘clean.’

The two experiments on 84 students were designed to first make them really disgusted, and thus inclined to be more negative in their judgments. In both experiments the students watched a repulsive 3-minute film clip from the Scottish film about heroin addicts, "Trainspotting." Without going into details, the episode involves a filthy toilet, and it is really disgusting.

The participants were asked to rate six moral dilemmas on a scale of zero (perfectly OK) to nine (extremely wrong.) The hypothetical situations included eating one’s dead dog, switching the tracks of a trolley to kill one workman instead of five, keeping money inside a found wallet, killing a terminally ill plane crash survivor to avoid starvation, putting false information on a resume, and using a kitten for sexual arousal.

In one of the two experiments, "only half of the participants were given the chance to wash their hands, as if to ‘wash away’ their feelings of disgust following the film," Schnall said. The participants were told they needed to wash their hands because the room was used by the faculty and needed to be kept extra clean.  "Participants who washed their hands found moral transgression to be less bad than participants who had not washed their hands."

The difference was called "substantial" in the study. 

Although it’s not entirely clear exactly what happened to the kitten, it must have been pretty bad because it was judged the most repugnant of all six dilemmas. Even eating one’s dead dog faired better, and only one of the scenarios posed little problem for the participants. Most saw little wrong with diverting a trolley to kill one man instead of five.

Similar results were obtained in another experiment which asked the participants to unscramble sentences consisting of 40 sets of four words each. Half of the participants received some words associated with cleanliness (pure, immaculate, pristine, etc.) and half received only neutral words.

Simply thinking about cleanliness had a significant effect. Students who had only neutral words judged the abuse of the kitten as extremely wrong (8.25 on a scale of zero to 9.) The students who had words suggesting cleanliness judged it at 6.70.

"In both experiments, the effect of the rather subtle manipulations was substantial, with medium to large effect sizes," the study concluded.

The study involved only college students — the so-called convenience sample because they are handy and willing to cooperate.  And it was a fairly small study, as are most original studies on the difficult subject of human behavior.

Assuming the findings are correct, the study does not address the question of whether we are conditioned by culture to equate cleanliness to godliness, or whether it is innate — just a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

"It seems that across different cultures, people equate physical cleanliness and purity with moral and spiritual purity," Schnall said. "Although it’s too early to say based on the present evidence, it appears that people have an innate intuition that purity cuts across the physical and moral domains."

So, a hot bath may be a spiritual journey, leaving us more tolerant of those who would mess up our lives.

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