Watering down morality

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By Feeling clean can dilute your sense of morality, Swachchhasila Basu reports
  • Published 1.12.08
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Quick, wash your ethics

The next time you find yourself trapped in the crossfire between your wife and mother and are in a dilemma on whose side to take, go take a shower. In all likelihood you’ll find yourself playing down the situation.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth in the UK, led by Dr Simone Schnall, recently conducted some experiments to show that the physical notion of cleanliness can significantly reduce the severity of moral judgements. The research paper is scheduled to be published tomorrow in the journal Psychological Science.

Elaborating on the relevance of the findings to everyday life, Dr Simone Schnall says, “When we exercise moral judgement, we believe we are making a conscious, rational decision, but this research shows that we are subconsciously influenced by how clean or ‘pure’ we feel.

“People may find it easier to overlook a political misdemeanour if they perform an action that makes them feel ‘clean’ prior to casting their vote.”

The research involved two experiments. In the first one, 40 undergraduate students from the University of Plymouth, with an average age of 20 years, were asked to complete a scrambled sentence task involving 40 sets of four words each. Half of them (the control group) were given neutral words to complete the sentences.

For the cleanliness condition, half the sets contained words related to cleanliness and purity (like purity, washed, clean, immaculate and pristine) while the rest were neutral words. All the participants were then asked to rate some moral dilemma situations like eating one’s dead dog, keeping money found in a wallet, putting false information on a resume, and using a kitten for sexual arousal. They had to rate the actions from 0 (perfectly OK) to 9 (extremely wrong).

In the second experiment a group of 44 students were shown a repulsive, ‘disgusting’ 3-minute clip from the film Trainspotting. Before rating the same set of dilemma, half of the participants was asked to wash their hands.

The findings from both the experiments demonstrated that those who were induced with the cognitive feeling of cleanliness exercised less severe moral judgement than their counterparts, leading to the conclusion that intuition, rather than deliberate reasoning, can influence our perception of what is right and wrong.

Schnall cites the example of the judiciary: if the jury members considering a case wash their hands prior to delivering their verdict, they may judge the crime less harshly. The question is, what if they do it when dealing with those who’re terrorists?