Ritual washing and purification ceremonies are a feature of many religions — but now research shows that those rites may put us in a less forgiving frame of mind. A study published earlier this month in the journal Psychological Science indicates that washing with soap and water can make people view questionable activities as less acceptable and reasonable than they would if they had not washed. The study also indicated that being exposed to disgusting stimuli can make us judge situations less harshly than we ordinarily would. This appears to indicate that people rely more on emotion and intuition than deliberate reasoning when we make decisions regarding what is right and what is wrong.
From The Economist:
Dr Schnall’s study was inspired by some previous work of her own. She had found that when feelings of disgust are instilled in them beforehand, people make decisions which are more ethical than would otherwise be expected. She speculates that the reason for this is that feeling morally unclean (ie, disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong. However, as the cleanliness and purification rituals found in many religions suggest, physical cleanliness, too, is linked to moral behaviour, so she decided to investigate this as well.
The researchers report that those who were given the “clean” words or who washed themselves rated the acts they were asked to consider as ethically more acceptable than the control groups did.
I found it interesting that all the reports I read interpreted the results of this study to mean that washing our hands causes us to make less moral judgements. Hey — wait, what happened to the idea that qualities like understanding and forgiveness are moral values? Are we only moral and ethical when we judge others’ behavior harshly? Oddly (especially in this age of political correctness), the researchers and the press both seem to be inferring this.
And maybe I’m weird, but I thought that the most interesting aspect of the study was evidence that we don’t make moral judgements in a rational way. That our sense of physical cleanliness directly affects how easily we become outraged. Seriously – doesn’t this make some things a little clearer?
Things like making a judgement that killing dogs solely because they resemble a certain rather broad physical type that has acquired a reputition for viciousness through human abuse and ignorance? [Dirty, icky people own those kinds of dogs — and they do vile things with them – off with their heads!]
Things like feeling justified in demanding that all licensed dogs be spayed and neutered before sexual maturity because some irresponsible people (people who usually don’t license their dogs anyway) have unplanned litters and abandon unwanted dogs? [Eww, dog sex. Disgusting. Have you seen how that dog licks himself — off with his balls!]
Things like believing it’s right to limit all households to a specific number of dogs just because some people are bothered by morons who keep loud, obnoxious, untrained beasts in unsanitary or unsafe conditions? [Revolting, nasty yard full of dog poop and filthy dogs who bark all day. Sleazebag owner that I wish would move away — off with his property rights!]
Maybe the people who are convinced that we need more of those kinds of laws need to wash a bit more — and judge a bit less.
In fact, an earlier study (published in Science in 2006) which also studied links between morality and hygiene, found that people commonly felt an urge to wash themselves after committing, or remembering they had committed, acts that they felt were immoral. The “MacBeth Effect” was manifested through increased attention on hygiene-related words and ideas, an enhanced desire to have and use cleaning products, and a craving for antiseptic wipes (seriously, I could not make this stuff up). The researchers noted that the study indicated that “physical cleansing alleviates the upsetting consequences of unethical behavior and reduces threats to one’s moral self-image.”
Interesting. So — while on the one hand (pun intended) we are more likely to judge other’s actions less harshly after washing ourselves — we also feel an urge to cleanse ourselves after commiting or thinking of an act we think of as wrong or immoral. Does this imply that we subconsciously feel that judging others is wrong? And that we should engage in ritual purification before making moral judgements instead of afterward?
And maybe that people who think we need to live in a harshly judgemental, politically correct world are exposed to too many fithy and disgusting experiences in their own lives?