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Washing Away Your Guilt

May 9, 2010

You can literally wash away with the guilt feeling after you have made some decisions with which you are not comfortable with by washing your hands with a soap! If the washing doesn’t totally get rid you of the guilt feeling or relieve you of the stress, it can atleast lessen it. Isn’t that great, just wash away the germs and cleanse your conscience in one shot. In various cultures bodily cleanliness has been related to moral cleanliness as well, example being quotes such as “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. Few recent studies have shown that bodily cleanliness or environmental cleanliness might have some influence on how one handles cognitive dissonance after one has taken some stressful decision (which can be a simple everyday decision or a huge life changing decision) and ultimately affect his/her moral conduct. Psychologists describe this effect as “Macbeth Effect” with reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth hallucinates blood stain on her hand and desperately tries to wash the hands in an effort to clear her conscience and saying “Out, damned spot!”

In one of such studies published in Science in 2006, researchers asked subjects to think about some ethical or unethical act and then asked them to fill in the incomplete words like like W_ _H and SH_ _ER. They found out that majority of subjects who thought of unethical act, completed the word as WASH and SHOWER while the rest filled in variety of words such as WISH, SHAKER and so on. The study claimed that any threat to one’s moral impurity induces a need to cleanse oneself and makes one more accessible to thoughts of cleansing related concepts and that shows up in the words WASH and SHOWER in this experiment. In another experiment in same study,  the subjects were offered to choose between a pencil or a wipe after thinking of the act and 3/4th of the subjects with unethical thoughts chose wipes as compared to “ethical” subjects- only 1/3rd of these subjects chose wipes. In order to test how washing hands affects future actions of the subjects, researchers asked the subjects to think about an unethical act and type the description on the computer. Half of them were asked to wash hands after they were done typing by telling them the keyboard was dirty. Now comes the next task, all the subjects were asked if they would help out some researchers in their experiments as unpaid subjects. Guess the results– those who washed their hands where 50% less likely to help out the researcher and explanation being that the act of washing their hands had absolved them of any immoral feeling, kind of reduced any threat to their moral self-image, so they didn’t feel much need to help out.

Building upon these results, Spike Lee at University of Michigan conducted  further experiments which was published in this week’s Science issue. In this study, they showed that washing hands can ease people’s mind and help them getting over past stressful concerns or negative emotions (not just limited to moral implications) and start fresh, also termed as ‘clean slate’ effect. In order to test the effect of hand washing on past negative emotions researchers had to develop some kind of event or act which can lead to developing negative emotions in subjects. In order to do that, researchers made subjects choose one option from two very attractive options. This will in turn lead to a bad feeling in subjects as picking one option makes one feel that they have lost the other. Often, when people make decisions—no matter how big or small—they tend to justify them, rationalizing often beyond reason that their choice was by far the best.

To see if hand washing could ease people’s tension and do away with the need for this after-the-fact justification, the researchers gave some subjects some mock “consumer surveys.”In this study, 40 subjects were asked to pick 10 CDs from a set of 30 and then they had to rank the CDs from 1 to 10 depending on which one they liked. Then they were given as token appreciation the choice to pick and take home either 5th or 6th choice from their list. In an unrelated task, half of these subjects were asked to wash their hands, while others were just asked to take a look at the soap or just sniff it. Later on these subjects were asked to rank the 10 CDs again. And guess what was the effect of washing hands on the new ranking of CDs. The subjects who did not wash their hands ranked the CDs as expected by after-the-fact justification i.e. they ranked their choice of take-home CDs higher than previous time as they tend to justify their earlier decision. While the subjects who washed their hands ranked the CDs about the same as last time showing that they did not feel the need to justify their decision, or in other words washing hands had a clean slate effect washing their mental turmoils. As compared to previous 2006 study, these result show that washing hands can reduce influence of your past behavior and decisions even when the acts have no moral implications.

So now hand washing soaps can have new advertisement tag lines– washing hands by soap not only cleans you of germs but also cleans your conscience and gives you a clean slate to start fresh– well maybe not the best of the taglines, its too long. But nevertheless, it’s an interesting study. How long these washing effects last? Maybe we will be able to get this answer in next study. So guys, wash your hands well!!

You can listen to  Spike Lee talk about his results here (NPR interview):

Filed under: Research

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2 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Do feelings of guilt haun&hellip  |  August 7, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    […] wash your hands. Seriously. A study shows that washing your hands can cleanse a guilty […]

  • 2. Nitin Shah  |  August 21, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    How long these washing effects last? More importantly can something go wrong
    simply by continuing to wash hands when we feel guilty?

    Based on the therapies we have conducted with people becoming obsessive with
    washing hands (OCD), it seems washing hands to deal with guilt is similar to
    having pain killers for chronic pains without working with the cause of the
    same. You can find the post explaining the same here

    “Feeling guilty, wash hands but be careful”

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