Social Psychology: "Are those hands never going to get clean?"

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Social Psychology: "Are those hands never going to get clean?"
Social Psychology: "Are those hands never going to get clean?"

Won't those hands never get clean?

Good angels are white - black is the outcast sheep. Idioms abound using "dirty," "dirty," "stained," or "black" as synonyms for the morally dubious, and "clean," "pure," "undefiled," or "white" as synonyms for the morally impeccable - and not just in the German language. Is there more to it?


We Germans have a clear conscience, and if dirt sticks to our sticks, we wash our hands in innocence and pull on a sparkling white waistcoat. With our dirty imaginations we come up with dirty tricks and grin dirty at the same time. We drag people through the mud or even throw it at them, wash other people's dirty laundry and tell nothing but the plainest truth, because we are pure innocence personified and have an unsullied past.

Not only the language reveals a possible connection between moral and physical purity. In many religions, too, a not necessarily symbolic act of washing or cleaning is carried out, which is intended to free the spirit from evil or heretical thoughts and deeds. Christian baptism, for example, is just one of these religious rituals.

Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University in Chicago wanted to clarify whether threatening or compromising one's moral self-image actually leads to an increased urge to self, or at least something wash or clean – obviously named the Macbeth effect, after Shakespeare's character in the novel Lady Macbeth."What, will these hands ne're be clean?", she asks herself in desperation after the murder of King Duncan – which she instigated her husband to commit – and obsessively tries to rid herself of supposed bloodstains, as if doing so would also clear her conscience.

In a first test, subjects were asked to recall either a good or bad deed in their past and describe how they felt. Immediately afterwards they had to fill in gaps in words such as: W_ _ H, SH _ _ ER and S_ _ P. The scientists had chosen these in such a way that the subjects could complete them to create words that either had a cleaning reference or not. In the first case, these were WASH (wash), SHOWER (shower) and SOAP (soap), in the second, for example, WISH (desire), SHAKER (mixer) and STEP (stage).

"Respondents who recalled unethical behavior filled in the blanks on cleaning-related words much more frequently than those who recalled good deeds. Accordingly, unethical behavior strengthens mental access to cleansing concepts," the researchers report.

In another experiment, the participants had to copy a short story written in the first person under a pretext. The stories described either a good, selfless deed (helping a co-worker) or a bad, underhanded one (sabotaging a co-worker). The subjects then rated the attractiveness of various products for them on a point scale. The products fell into two categories: cleaning, personal care and hygiene products, and on the other hand small foodstuffs and necessities of about the same value, such as candy bars or batteries.

Again, the cleaning product category was more attractive to those exposed to the unethical acts than to the other participants. Accordingly, even an indirect threat to one's own morality through knowledge of the unethical behavior of others increases the need for purification.

But do actions follow this association? To do this, the test subjects were asked to remember either good or questionable actions from their past. They were then allowed to choose either a pencil or an antibacterial hand cleaning cloth as compensation. The people who thought their conscience had been burdened by remembering their bad deed took the cleansing cloth twice as often as the others.

Participants who wiped their hands with one of these wipes after revealing their guilt were much less likely to mention negative moral emotions such as shame, guilt and regret in a subsequent questionnaire about their current emotional state than those who also had one Confessed the crime but didn't wash their hands afterwards.

Zhong and Liljenquist then asked the same subjects to participate in another study without pay to help out a desperate student who was still desperately looking for participants. Those who had washed their hands were much less willing to do so - as if washing had cleared their guilty conscience enough. No more good deeds, it seemed, were needed.

So there is, the Macbeth effect: A guilty conscience, and even morality threatened by the misdeeds of others, obviously not only awakens an increased need for cleanliness or self-cleansing. Just washing your hands eases your conscience and helps restore a moral self-image.

And what about the reverse? Does stricter hygiene promote higher morals? Or, on the contrary, does it support dubious ethical behavior, because impurity is constantly being washed away - according to the motto: "clean hands, clean heart"? That remains to be clarified.

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