How Can Two Studies Say Cleanliness Makes You More And Less Forgiving?

I love it when I find studies with results that directly contradict each other. In this case, two studies on how handwashing affects moral judgment draw two completely opposite conclusions. So it's kind of fitting that we judge them!

The Lady Macbeth Effect has been noted in multiple scientific studies. When people feel a sense of emotional shame, either because they have done something wrong, or because they are reminded of a shameful incident from their past, they will try to clean themselves. People who have been reminded of a shameful incident during a study will, when offered a choice of "gifts," be more likely to pick a gift of hand soap than they would be if they had been reminded of a neutral incident. People feel better and calmer when thinking about such incidents if they are given a chance to wash their hands first. Personal shame and personal cleanliness are linked.

What about the shame we want to deal out to others? If we feel clean after a shower, does that sense of moral rejuvenation extend to the people around us? One study indicates that it does. The experiment ran with two variations. In one, people actually washed their hands, getting clean and righteous. In another, people only thought about an image — usually rushing water — that invoked a sense of cleanliness. Either way, when asked to judge certain actions, the group that washed judged them to be less morally wrong than groups that didn't have a chance to physically or mentally clean themselves. The researchers concluded that the feeling of disgust heavily influences our moral judgments. Give a person a chance to shed that feeling of disgust, and they're less likely to take their feeling out on anyone else.

Or are they? Another study ran the same test. Sometimes people thought about being oh-so-clean, and sometimes they had a chance to wash their dirty selves off. When asked about moral issues, specified by the study as "abortion and pornography," those who had a chance to clean themselves were far more severe in their moral judgment of others. By cleaning themselves, the researcher reasoned, the participants had set themselves up as morally pure arbiters. They considered themselves untainted and were therefore less empathetic.

So which do you think it is? Do showers make us more harsh, or less harsh? Or do they have no effect on us at all, and any test on the subject will just measure its own flaws? I'm ambivalent, but then, before I typed this out, I washed one of my hands and left the other one dirty, so that's to be expected.

Top image: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock.

[Via With a Clean Conscience, A Clean Self Can Render Harsh Moral Judgement]