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Dirty Hands and Dirty Mouths: Embodiment of the Moral-Purity Metaphor Is Specific to the Motor Modality Involved in Moral Transgression

Psychological Science
21(10) 1423 –1425
© The Author(s) 2010
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DOI: 10.1177/0956797610382788
Water and soap remove more than physical dirt―they attenuate
guilt from one’s moral transgressions (Zhong & Liljenquist,
2006) and soften one’s judgment of others’ misdeeds (Schnall,
Benton, & Harvey, 2008). Conversely, immoral acts increase the
appeal of physical cleansing (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). Such
findings indicate that abstract thought about morality is grounded
in concrete experiences of physical cleanliness (Lakoff &
Johnson, 1999). Natural language use associates this moral-
purity metaphor with specific body parts (e.g., “dirty hands,”
“dirty mouth”), suggesting that the motor modality involved in a
transgression may figure prominently in the embodiment of
moral purity. If so, people should prefer purification of the
“dirty” body part over purification of other body parts.
We tested this conjecture, which is compatible with the
canon of embodiment (Barsalou, 2008; Niedenthal, Barsalou,
Winkielman, Krauth-Gruber, & Ric, 2005), by inducing par-
ticipants to perform the same immoral act (conveying a malev-
olent lie) or moral act (conveying a benevolent message) with
their mouths (by using voice mail) or their hands (by using
e-mail). Their subsequent desire for mouthwash and for hand
sanitizer served as the dependent variables. If the embodiment
of moral purity is independent of motor modality, as previous
research implicitly assumed, both cleaning products should be
more attractive to people after they convey a malevolent mes-
sage than after they convey a benevolent message; if the
embodiment is sensitive to motor modality, however, mouth-
wash should be particularly desirable after lying in a voice
mail, and hand sanitizer should be particularly desirable after
lying in an e-mail. Note, however, that people not only avoid
physical contact with morally tainted people and objects,
but also seek physical contact with virtuous ones (Rozin &
Nemeroff, 1990). Hence, they may not only attempt to remove
the metaphorical residue of immoral acts, but also avoid remov-
ing the residue of virtuous acts. In this case, people would find
mouthwash particularly unappealing after conveying a virtu-
ous message in a voice mail and hand sanitizer particularly
unappealing after conveying a virtuous message in an e-mail.
Eighty-seven undergraduates (34 male, 53 female) participated
in our experiment for course credit and were randomly assigned
to conditions in a 2 (modality: mouth vs. hands) × 2 (ethicality:
unethical vs. ethical) between-subjects design. Told that they
were taking part in a personality study, participants enacted a
scenario modeled after one used by Zhong and Liljenquist
(2006). Each person imagined being a law-firm associate com-
peting for promotion with a colleague, Chris, and finding an
important document that Chris had lost. Returning the docu-
ment would help Chris’s career and hurt the participant’s own
career. The participant was instructed to leave Chris a voice
mail (mouth) or type Chris an e-mail (hands) telling him “who
you are” and explaining that “you could not find his document”
(unethical) or that “you found his document” (ethical). The par-
ticipant actually delivered the message, allegedly to provide
verbal material for personality analysis.
Next, participants rated the desirability of several products
(1 = completely undesirable, 7 = completely desirable) as part
of an ostensible marketing survey and reported how much they
were willing to pay (WTP) for each one (“$__”). The products
included mouthwash and hand sanitizer. The participants were
then given a funnel debriefing. None of them indicated any
suspicion about the experiment’s true purpose.
Desirability and log-transformed WTP data were standardized
and submitted to a 2 (ethicality: ethical, unethical) × 2 (modal-
ity: hands, mouth) × 2 (product: hand sanitizer, mouthwash) ×
2 (measure: desirability, WTP) mixed analysis of variance
Corresponding Author:
Spike W.S. Lee, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan,
530 Church St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043
Dirty Hands and Dirty Mouths:
Embodiment of the Moral-Purity Metaphor
Is Specific to the Motor Modality Involved
in Moral Transgression
Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz
University of Michigan
Received 3/9/10; Revision accepted 4/18/10
Short Report
1424 Lee, Schwarz
(ANOVA), with the last two factors being within subjects. An
Ethicality × Modality × Product interaction, F(1, 81) = 10.29,
p = .002, indicated a significant role of motor modality, which
was not moderated by measure (F < 1 for the four-way inter-
action). The two measures were averaged, with higher scores
indicating higher desirability and WTP.
As shown in Figure 1a, participants evaluated mouthwash
more positively after lying in a voice mail (M = 0.21, SD =
0.72) than after lying in an e-mail (M = –0.26, SD = 0.94),
F(1, 81) = 2.93, p = .03 (one-tailed), d = 0.55 (simple main
effect), but evaluated hand sanitizer more positively after lying
in an e-mail (M = 0.31, SD = 0.76) than after lying in a voice
mail (M = –0.12, SD = 0.86), F(1, 81) = 3.25, p = .04 (one-
tailed), d = 0.53 (simple main effect). The Modality × Product
simple interaction was significant under unethical conditions,
F(1, 81) = 7.45, p = .008.
In contrast, participants evaluated hand sanitizer less posi-
tively after telling the truth in an e-mail (M = –0.33, SD =
0.82) than after telling the truth in a voice mail (M = 0.23,
SD = 0.70), F(1, 81) = 5.02, p = .03, d = 0.74 (simple main
effect). However, modality did not affect their evaluation of
mouthwash, F < 1 (Fig. 1b). The Modality × Product simple
interaction was marginally significant under ethical condi-
tions, F(1, 81) = 3.29, p = .07.
These findings indicate that the embodiment of moral purity is
specific to the motor modality involved in a moral transgres-
sion, making purification of the “dirty” body part more desir-
able than purification of other body parts. Consistent with this
observation, reanalysis of earlier findings shows that copying
Unethical Acts
Voice Mail: Mouth E-mail: Hands
Voice Mail: Mouth E-mail: Hands
Hand SanitizerMouthwash
Hand SanitizerMouthwash
Ethical Acts
Fig. 1. Participants’ mean evaluation of mouthwash and hand sanitizer as a function of the motor modality (mouth
or hands) of (a) unethical acts and (b) ethical acts. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean.
Embodiment of the Moral-Purity Metaphor 1425
(rather than enacting) a story about immoral others increases
the desire to clean the external world (as reflected in evalua-
tions of detergent and disinfectant, ds = 1.15 and 0.75) more
than the desire to clean one’s own body (as reflected in evalu-
ations of soap, d = 0.37; Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006, Study 2).
Moreover, hand washing influences judgments of others’
transgressions more when the transgressions involve solely
the hands (ds = 0.61–0.81) rather than additional body parts
(ds = 0.28–0.45; Schnall et al., 2008). In addition, our findings
indicate that the embodiment of moral purity extends to virtu-
ous acts: Having typed a virtuous e-mail made hand sanitizer
unappealing, a result suggesting that people may avoid rinsing
away residues of virtue (Bloom, 2009; Rozin & Nemeroff,
1990); however, parallel effects were not observed for mouth-
wash. In natural parlance, metaphorical references to “clean
hands” seem more common and natural than metaphorical ref-
erences to a “clean mouth,” raising the possibility that acces-
sibility of an applicable metaphor is a crucial ingredient for the
observed effects (Chandler & Schwarz, 2009).
Going beyond moral purity, numerous studies have demon-
strated the pervasive effects of embodied metaphors in the
social domain (for reviews, see Landau, Meier, & Keefer, in
press; Williams, Huang, & Bargh, 2009). The present findings
suggest that such effects should be more pronounced when the
motor modality of the metaphor-priming task matches the
motor modality of the downstream judgment and behavior.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
The first author was supported by an R.C. Lee Centenary Scholarship.
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... There are good evolutionary reasons to avoid those we see as impure. Concerns of moral purity likely arose from the evolutionary mechanism of physically distancing ourselves from contagion, eventually evolving into avoidance based on the worries of social contamination (Lee & Schwarz, 2010). Translated into social contexts, those who were perceived to be 'contaminated' with impure beliefs are excluded from their groups, resulting in social isolation. ...
... This would suggest that the moral judgments made about a candidate also plays a key role in our decisions to socialize with others within a professional context, in addition to (or despite) their skills and competencies. It would be reasonable to expect participants to display this behaviour as past literature examining the impact of moral purity on social distance has found that people generally avoid others they deem impure for the fear of physical and/or social contamination (Lee & Schwarz, 2010). Furthermore, it also provides insight into the mechanism behind the transference of social difference based prejudice into organizations (Kartolo and Kwantes 2019). ...
... The crux of morality is built around separating good from bad, so it is intuitive to expect different reactions when people are faced with individuals they perceive to be more moral than themselves, as opposed to those less moral than themselves. This also fits the concept of social contamination posed by Lee & Schwarz (2010), where it would make sense for people to move away from zones of high perceived contamination and towards low perceived contamination. However, relationships are a two-way street. ...
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Past research that examined the mechanisms underlying polarization and homophily has found that dissimilarity in moral beliefs plays a big role in the groups people choose to socialize with. People have been shown to distance themselves from others who they believe may be morally inferior to them in order to protect their own sanctity. This research explores the way moral judgments of an individual may impact how they are treated within a workplace context, specifically, how it may impact hiring decisions within an institution. Participants were asked to evaluate two candidate profiles containing information on the relevant skills and experiences as well as a number of responses to the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, and then choose a position to hire them into, if any. The projected results suggest that (i) participants will prefer to work more closely with candidates who have high morality scores over those who have low morality scores, and (ii) comparing the candidate's morality score with the participants' own score will have an impact on their decision. It's also projected that participants who have high morality scores will display stronger preferences for who they affiliate with than those with lower scores. Investigating these mechanisms and understanding the effects of moral judgements on social affiliations can provide insight into how we implicitly perpetuate prejudices at institutional levels. This would serve to better understand the intersectionality of individual beliefs and organizational practices, and how that might affect people from different social strata.
... This parodies the so-called Macbeth effect, as the female character of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth who compulsively washes her hands after inciting her husband to murder King Duncan, giving rise to an interesting aspect that physical cleansing may act as a substitute for moral purification in order to restore moral balancing (Sachdeva, Iliev, & Medin, 2009;West, & Zhong, 2015) This suggestion stimulated further research on both empirical behaviour and neural studies (e.g. Denke, Rotte, Heinze, & Schaefer, 2016;Gollwitzer & Melzer, 2012;Lee & Schwarz, 2010a;Lobel et al., 2015;Schaefer, 2019;Xu, Bègue, & Bushman, 2014). For example, a brain study conducted by Denke et al. (2016) investigated this phenomenon using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). ...
... Lobel et al. (2015) examined this symbolic purity and found that religious participants who felt clean after completing the actual ritual washing (Mikveh) decided to decrease donation because physical cleansing washed away their sin and reduced the need for prosocial behaviour, compared to religious participants who sensed being unclean and thus donated more money before ritual practice in order to perform good deeds for atonement. Similarly, Lee and Schwarz (2010a) discovered that participants desired to clean their dirty body parts (after conducting immoral acts) more than other cleaner body areas (not involving immoral acts). These study results implied that abstract concepts concerning purification and cleanliness are physically embodied in the form of physical cleansing activities. ...
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Fourteen years ago, a series of studies by Zhong and Liljenquist (2006) revealed that threatened morality fuels physical cleansing. This so-called Macbeth effect demonstrated that washing one's hands protected against physical contamination and also alleviated guilt after unethical behaviour. This moral cleansing behaviour retrieved moral self-worth as a means to take responsibility for past misdeeds and bridged the gap between moral self-concepts and perceived self-imagery as a counterbalance to elicit well-being. Extant research on moral cleansing presents a huge gap in the literature. A systematic review was undertaken to examine empirical studies that addressed the link between physical cleanliness and morality. Results showed that physical cleansing and the feeling of cleanliness have the capability to ameliorate one's guilt after immoral behaviour, reduce prosocial behaviour by changing ethical standards and even promote a clean slate effect. However, failure studies of the Macbeth effect also exist due to disparities in culture, moral identity and methodological limitations. Future research scenarios are offered.
... When evaluating the desirability of mouthwash and hand sanitizer products, the mouthwash was rated more positively after lying by voicemail ("dirty mouth"), while the hand sanitizer was rated more positively after lying by email ("dirty hands"). 47 Divinity is mapped onto our bodily perception of vertical space as shown in implicit association, encoding speed, memory retrieval, and social judgment tasks. 48 The provocative implication of the research program of embodied cognition for the scientific accounting of spirit is that it reveals the mind as entangled in the world, and therefore not inert. ...
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... cleansing products(Lee and Schwarz, 2010;Zhong and Liljenquist, 2006). This effect, known as moral cleansing, has been thought of as an attempt to re-establish a threatened concept of self through physical cleanness. ...
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While studies suggest that even higher-order functions can be embodied, whether body awareness may bias moral decisions towards (dis)honesty remains underinvestigated. Here, we tested if the Sense of body Ownership (SoO) and the magnitude of monetary rewards influence the tendency to act immorally. Through a virtual body, participants played a card game in which they could lie to others to steal high or low amounts of money. To manipulate SoO, the virtual body was seen and controlled from a first-person perspective, with hands attached or detached, or from a third-person perspective. In third-person perspective, SoO was significantly reduced and more egoistic lies were produced in high reward conditions. Thus, SoO reduction and high monetary reward facilitate dishonest behavior, likely by separating the self from the dishonest actions performed through the disowned body. Since most future interactions will likely occur in a digital metaverse, our results may have crucial societal impact.
... Does this mean that saying dirty words with one's mouth and performing bad behaviors with one's hands will encourage people to cleanse the body parts associated with these behaviors? Lee and Schwarz reported differences in moral metaphorical effects corresponding to different body parts (Lee & Schwarz, 2010). Additionally, reported that handcleansing led to harsher moral judgments. ...
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... L'anthropologiste Douglas (2003) note que la notion pollution n'engage pas seulement les domaines de l'hygiène et de la santé, mais est aussi un symbole de l'impureté psychologique, comme des actes immoraux. Cette métaphore est prouvée par des psychologues Zhong et Liljenquist (2006), Lee et Schwarz (2010), selon lesquels la morale abstraite est effectivement incarnée par des expériences concrètes de la propreté physique. Alors que de nos jours, pétasse est une insulte commune sans connotation sexuelle pour les femmes. ...
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Findings in the social psychology literatures on attitudes, social perception, and emotion demonstrate that social information processing involves embodiment, where embodiment refers both to actual bodily states and to simulations of experience in the brain's modality-specific systems for perception, action, and introspection. We show that embodiment underlies social information processing when the perceiver interacts with actual social objects (online cognition) and when the perceiver represents social objects in their absence (offline cognition). Although many empirical demonstrations of social embodiment exist, no particularly compelling account of them has been offered. We propose that theories of embodied cognition, such as the Perceptual Symbol Systems (PSS) account (Barsalou, 1999), explain and integrate these findings, and that they also suggest exciting new directions for research. We compare the PSS account to a variety of related proposals and show how it addresses criticisms that have previously posed problems for the general embodiment approach.
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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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Grounded cognition rejects traditional views that cognition is computation on amodal symbols in a modular system, independent of the brain's modal systems for perception, action, and introspection. Instead, grounded cognition proposes that modal simulations, bodily states, and situated action underlie cognition. Accumulating behavioral and neural evidence supporting this view is reviewed from research on perception, memory, knowledge, language, thought, social cognition, and development. Theories of grounded cognition are also reviewed, as are origins of the area and common misperceptions of it. Theoretical, empirical, and methodological issues are raised whose future treatment is likely to affect the growth and impact of grounded cognition.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson take on the daunting task of rebuilding Western philosophy in alignment with three fundamental lessons from cognitive science: The mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious, and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. Why so daunting? "Cognitive science--the empirical study of the mind--calls upon us to create a new, empirically responsible philosophy, a philosophy consistent with empirical discoveries about the nature of mind," they write. "A serious appreciation of cognitive science requires us to rethink philosophy from the beginning, in a way that would put it more in touch with the reality of how we think." In other words, no Platonic forms, no Cartesian mind-body duality, no Kantian pure logic. Even Noam Chomsky's generative linguistics is revealed under scrutiny to have substantial problems. Parts of Philosophy in the Flesh retrace the ground covered in the authors' earlier Metaphors We Live By , which revealed how we deal with abstract concepts through metaphor. (The previous sentence, for example, relies on the metaphors "Knowledge is a place" and "Knowing is seeing" to make its point.) Here they reveal the metaphorical underpinnings of basic philosophical concepts like time, causality--even morality--demonstrating how these metaphors are rooted in our embodied experiences. They repropose philosophy as an attempt to perfect such conceptual metaphors so that we can understand how our thought processes shape our experience; they even make a tentative effort toward rescuing spirituality from the heavy blows dealt by the disproving of the disembodied mind or "soul" by reimagining "transcendence" as "imaginative empathetic projection." Their source list is helpfully arranged by subject matter, making it easier to follow up on their citations. If you enjoyed the mental workout from Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works , Lakoff and Johnson will, to pursue the "Learning is exercise" metaphor, take you to the next level of training. --Ron Hogan Two leading thinkers offer a blueprint for a new philosophy. "Their ambition is massive, their argument important.…The authors engage in a sort of metaphorical genome project, attempting to delineate the genetic code of human thought." -The New York Times Book Review "This book will be an instant academic best-seller." -Mark Turner, University of Maryland This is philosophy as it has never been seen before. Lakoff and Johnson show that a philosophy responsible to the science of the mind offers a radically new and detailed understandings of what a person is. After first describing the philosophical stance that must follow from taking cognitive science seriously, they re-examine the basic concepts of the mind, time, causation, morality, and the self; then they rethink a host of philosophical traditions, from the classical Greeks through Kantian morality through modern analytical philosophy.
Body movements both express and influence how people feel and think. Conceptualizations of this bidirectional influence assume that movement–concept associations can be innate or learned, although evidence for learned associations remained ambiguous. Providing a conservative test of learned movement–concept associations, two studies investigate the influence of culture-specific body movements, which involve an arbitrary relationship between movements and associated concepts. Paralleling the influence of hostility primes, extending the middle finger influenced the interpretation of ambiguously aggressive behaviors as hostile, but did not influence unrelated trait judgments (Study 1). Paralleling the effects of global evaluative primes, upward extension of the thumb resulted in more positive evaluations of the same target along all trait dimensions and higher liking of the target (Study 2).
It has long been a staple of psychological theory that early life experiences significantly shape the adult's understanding of and reactions to the social world. Here we consider how early concept development along with evolved motives operating early in life can come to exert a passive, unconscious influence on the human adult's higher-order goal pursuits, judgments, and actions. In particular, we focus on concepts and goal structures specialized for interacting with the physical environment (e.g., distance cues, temperature, cleanliness, and self-protection), which emerge early and automatically as a natural part of human development and evolution. It is proposed that via the process of scaffolding, these early sensorimotor experiences serve as the foundation for the later development of more abstract concepts and goals. Experiments using priming methodologies reveal the extent to which these early concepts serve as the analogical basis for more abstract psychological concepts, such that we come easily and naturally to speak of close relationships, warm personalities, moral purity, and psychological pain. Taken together, this research demonstrates the extent to which such foundational concepts are capable of influencing people's information processing, affective judgments, and goal pursuit, oftentimes outside of their intention or awareness.
Theories of moral judgment have long emphasized reasoning and conscious thought while downplaying the role of intuitive and contextual influences. However, recent research has demonstrated that incidental feelings of disgust can influence moral judgments and make them more severe. This study involved two experiments demonstrating that the reverse effect can occur when the notion of physical purity is made salient, thus making moral judgments less severe. After having the cognitive concept of cleanliness activated (Experiment 1) or after physically cleansing themselves after experiencing disgust (Experiment 2), participants found certain moral actions to be less wrong than did participants who had not been exposed to a cleanliness manipulation. The findings support the idea that moral judgment can be driven by intuitive processes, rather than deliberate reasoning. One of those intuitions appears to be physical purity, because it has a strong connection to moral purity.
Developmental social cognition and the value of everyday objects. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology How extending your middle finger affects your perception of others: Learned movements influence concept accessibility
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  • J Chandler
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Bloom, P. (2009, February). Developmental social cognition and the value of everyday objects. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Tampa, FL. Chandler, J., & Schwarz, N. (2009). How extending your middle finger affects your perception of others: Learned movements influence concept accessibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 123–128.