Cleanliness Is Next to … Morality?

New research finds that the cleaner you feel, the more judgmental you’re apt to be. A team of researchers “invited 58 undergrads to a lab filled with spotless new equipment,” reports the BPS Research Digest. “Half the students were asked to clean their hands with an antiseptic wipe so as not to soil the shiny surfaces. Afterwards all the students rated the morality of six societal issues including pornography and littering. Those who’d wiped their hands made far harsher judgments than those who didn’t.” The researchers found similar results when they asked hundreds of participants to read “clean” vs. “dirty” text passages. In a third study, the researchers also asked participants to rank their own moral character after reading the text passages: “As before, those primed with the clean text made more harsh moral judgments on social issues. Crucially, this association was entirely mediated by their having an inflated sense of moral virtuosity compared with their peers.” Makes you wonder what happens to bedside manner at hospitals that finally convince their doctors to wash their hands. [%comments]


How reliable can a study with only 58 people really be?


I think this is certainly closer to the "altruism" studies covered in Superfreakonomics than anything else. Small sample size and a lab environment makes for results that those conducting the experiment want or expect.


Use of the non-neutral term "harsher" in the conclusions makes me wonder if researcher-bias might have affected the experiment. Regardless of that, if the results are correct, I already can image closing arguments of courtroom lawyers filled with subliminal messages designed to influence the jury.

Eric M. Jones

I can't comment on the test results, but I have often suspected that being really clean might be a form of "compensation" for being bad, or at least wanting to compensate for impurities in one's heart and soul.

My mom knew my dad was cheating on her when he started to wash his hands dozens of times a day. This hand-washing to remove guilt is not so rare.


Doesn't Lady MacBeth start to repeatedly wash her hands after having instigated a murder spree by her husband?

Carol Anne

What is a harsh moral judgement? Without examples, we cannot evaluate the results.


Am I having a déja-vu or did this same research bounce all around the Internet a couple months ago?

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

It is telling that Devout Muslim Fundamentist who pray 5 times a day, with abulation ritual washing of not just hands, but feet, face and nostrils are also the world's most severe moral and religious critics. Death by stoning is still a prescription to adultery. Clean but violent.


Is it about cleanliness, or about following directions?

Suppose they had been given a different directive first, maybe reading a list of warnings or directions so they don't break the equipment. It might prime them for valuing rule-following.


The research might or might not be good. But this seems true intuitively.