Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing

Department of Organizational Behavior and HR Management, Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E6, Canada.
Science (Impact Factor: 33.61). 10/2006; 313(5792):1451-2. DOI: 10.1126/science.1130726
Source: PubMed


Physical cleansing has been a focal element in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. The prevalence of this practice
suggests a psychological association between bodily purity and moral purity. In three studies, we explored what we call the
“Macbeth effect”—that is, a threat to one's moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself. This effect revealed itself
through an increased mental accessibility of cleansing-related concepts, a greater desire for cleansing products, and a greater
likelihood of taking antiseptic wipes. Furthermore, we showed that physical cleansing alleviates the upsetting consequences
of unethical behavior and reduces threats to one's moral self-image. Daily hygiene routines such as washing hands, as simple
and benign as they might seem, can deliver a powerful antidote to threatened morality, enabling people to truly wash away
their sins.

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    • "Zhong and Liljenquist (2006) and Reuven et al. (2014), we computed an index of moral emotions as an average of the ratings of disgust, regret, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and anger. Subsequently, we conducted an independent samples Mann–Whitney U test on the differences between the questionnaire scores (see Figure 1(c)). "
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    ABSTRACT: The effect of threatened morality on negative emotions and on altruistic behaviour has been shown to diminish following physical cleansing (hand-washing). We hypothesised that threatened morality will broadly impair the executive control system, and that physical cleansing will moderate this detrimental effect. Thirty-seven participants were asked to write about an immoral deed they had committed, whereupon half of them were allowed to wipe their hands. Three executive control tasks-Stroop, stop-signal, and object interference-were then administered to all participants. Participants who had not wiped their hands, but not those who did, demonstrated impaired performance, compared to hand-washing controls, in all three tasks. We conclude that threatened morality has a detrimental effect on executive control, specifically on conflict monitoring and response inhibition, and that physical cleansing "frees" this system, counteracting the detrimental effects of morality threats. We discuss possible implications for obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is characterised by deficient executive control and in which both threatened morality and physical cleansing are central concerns.
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    • "However, it may be that the evocation manipulation, as carried out in Study 2, was not enough to activate a state of pride which was substantially different from the baseline. This type of procedure has been used successfully in several studies, such as, for example, studies on the autonomous activation of different emotions (Larsen, Berntson, Poehlmann, Ito, & Cacioppo, 2008) or on the effects of self-conscious emotions such as guilt (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). However, as stated in the previous section, these procedures may not be the most appropriate for evoking the experience of a complex emotion such as pride in children aged nine to 11. "

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    • "Specifically , activating the concept of immorality leads to higher accessibility of cleaning - related words ( Zhong and Liljenquist , 2006 ; Jones and Fitness , 2008 ; Yan et al . , 2011 ) , which points to modal priming . "
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