New studies show that people who are (or feel) physically clean are more inclined to make harsher moral judgments.
The study, with the somewhat Victorian-sounding name of “A clean self can render harsh moral judgment” was conducted by Chen-Bo Zhong at Northwestern University and appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Some 58 undergrads were invited to a lab filled with spotless new equipment. Half of the students were asked to clean their hands with antiseptic wipe, so as not to soil the shiny surfaces. Afterward all the students rated the morality of six societal issues — smoking, illegal drug use, pornography, profane language, littering and adultery — on an 11-point scale ranging from very moral to very immoral. Those who’d wiped their hands made far-harsher judgments than those who didn’t.
“Participants who cleansed their hands before rating the social issues judged these issues to be more morally wrong compared to those who did not cleanse their hands,” the researchers report.
In a follow-up study, hundreds of participants were told to read a short passage that began, “My hair feels clean and light. My breath is fresh. My clothes are pristine and like new,” made harsher moral judgments about 16 social issues compared to those primed to feel dirty by reading a passage that read, “My hair feels oily and heavy. My breath stinks. I feel so dirty.”
I’d really like to see this tested cross-culturally (does the effect appear across cultures?) and over time (how long does the effect last?).