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New Delhi, Sept. 8: William Shakespeare’s depiction of a guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth trying to wash away imaginary bloodstains does indeed reflect the behaviour of real people in the real world, researchers reported today.
Guilt following unethical acts tends to make people want to wash themselves, experts studying human behaviour have said, describing the results of the first scientifically controlled experiments that show how physical and moral purity are intertwined.
The experiments, designed by Katie Liljenquist at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University in the US, and Chen Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto in Canada, show that physical cleansing helps people feel better after unethical behaviour and reduces threats to a person’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,” the researchers said in today’s issue of the US journal Science.
Their results appear to validate the link between physical cleansing and purity long articulated through religious practices in cultures worldwide.
Purification through bathing or washing is practised in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, among other faiths.
“But, ironically, while washing hands or physical cleansing can reduce moral threats, it could also reduce compensatory ethical behaviour,” Zhong told The Telegraph.
Zhong said most people desire a self-identity as a good and moral person.
When that identity is threatened through an unethical act — such as cheating in a relationship or wrongdoing — people tend to engage in positive ethical behaviour such as offering help to others or donating money to make up for their past sins.
But the experiments suggest that due to the psychological link between moral and physical cleansing, individuals who cleanse their hands also wash away their moral sins.
“Physical cleansing significantly reduced the motivation to engage in positive ethical behaviour,” Zhong said.
The researchers also suspect environmental cleanliness could have an impact on ethical behaviour in society, though they caution it is unclear for now whether the impact would be positive or negative.
“There are still unanswered questions, but this is exciting stuff, because it shows how a small, unobtrusive intervention could have huge ramifications at a societal level,” Liljenquist told The Telegraph.
One possibility is that a cleaner environment would make people feel better about themselves and reduce the likelihood that they would feel the need to engage in ethical behaviour.
“However, it is also possible that a clean environment would activate the concept of moral cleanliness and consequently increase ethical behaviour,” Liljenquist said.
In one set of experiments, the researchers asked volunteers to focus on ethical or unethical deeds and then participate in word-completion exercises — W..H, for instance, could be either WASH or WISH, while S..P could be SOAP or STEP. The participants who thought about unethical acts were more likely to pick WASH rather than WISH or an antiseptic wipe as a gift rather than a pencil.
Next, the participants were given the option to wash their hands after recalling an unethical act, then asked to volunteer without pay for another study to help out a desperate student.
While 74 per cent of those who had not washed hands offered to help, only 41 per cent of those who had washed agreed to do so.
“Physical cleansing also influenced the participants’ emotional states,” said Liljenquist. “The participants who had a chance to wash their hands after recalling the unethical act experienced less moral emotions such as guilt or regret and disgust.”
“If we want to take better control over our behaviours and actively engage in altruistic behaviours to compensate for mistakes of our pasts, a long hot shower may not be the best route,” Zhong said.