Cleanliness can compromise moral judgment

New research in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science has found that the physical notion of cleanliness significantly reduces the severity of moral judgments, showing that intuition, rather than deliberate reasoning can influence our perception of what is right and wrong. Lead researcher, Simone Schnall explains the relevance of the findings to everyday life; "When we exercise moral judgment, 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.

"Take for example the situation of a jury member or voting in an election - if the jury member had washes their hands prior to delivering their verdict, they may judge the crime less harshly.

"Similarly, someone may find it easier to overlook a political misdemeanor had they performed an action that made them feel 'clean' prior to casting their vote."

The research was conducted through two experiments with university students. In the first, they were asked to complete a scrambled sentence task involving 40 sets of four words each. By underlining any three words, a sentence could be formed. For the neutral condition, the task contained 40 sets of neutral words, but for the cleanliness condition, half of the sets contained words such as 'pure, washed, clean, immaculate, and pristine'. The participants were then asked to rate a series of moral dilemmas including keeping money found inside a wallet, putting false information on a resume and killing a terminally ill plane crash survivor in order to avoid starvation.

The second experiment saw the students watch a 'disgusting' film clip before rating the same moral dilemmas. However, half the group were asked to first wash their hands.

The findings from both experiments demonstrated that those who were subject to the cognitive feeling of cleanliness exercised less severe moral judgment than their counterparts.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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Citation: Cleanliness can compromise moral judgment (2008, December 1) retrieved 21 October 2019 from
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User comments

Dec 01, 2008
I knew it! Morals are subjective!

Dec 01, 2008
title is awful. It implies morality has objective integretity, and that cleanliness 'compromises' it. Body of article is more accurate, drawing no conclusions. Maybe juries should be given cleaning-spa treatments during all deliberations lol.

Dec 01, 2008
I'd like to know if the folks who did not wash their hands had a time period and activity, ie a BREAK that was of a similar nature of the folks who were told to 'wash their hands'. This tiny (but fundamental) differential can skew the whole test's validity. Not to mention the aspect of having to 'clean' hands, such as the given psychological aspects of doing such an activity may play into the results. Perhaps taking a dump might have been a more valid regime as a differential.

Dec 02, 2008
I wish this study and its conclusions had been tailored to show the much more important mechanism of SELF-judgment being affected by one's feeling of cleanliness. I strongly suspect a sleezy politician's expensive business suit notably helps him rationalize his antisocial behavior.

Dec 02, 2008
Give new light to the follow passage of scripture...

Matthew 27:24: When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but [that] rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed [his] hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye [to it].

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