In some cultures, people associate physical cleanliness with moral purity. Therefore, simple acts like washing hands and face alleviate the threats to one’s moral self-image. This study sought to establish the relationship between physical cleanliness and moral purity. Four studies were carried out with each having different variables connected to the thesis statement that bodily cleanliness implies moral purity. Using surveys, each study engaged different participants to carry out disparate tasks and the results were analyzed to establish the relationship between physical cleanliness and moral uprightness. The results showed that asking individuals to recall unethical deeds from their past elicits emotions of moral impurity. Therefore, such individuals will seek to carry out tasks that can cover their unethical behaviors and guilt. However, after washing their hands, the individuals gain a sense of moral purity. The available research supports the findings of this study as explained in the discussion section.
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People in morally compromising situations tend to look for ways to cleanse their conscience and reaffirm their righteousness. One of the interesting coping mechanisms that individuals adopt is washing away their immoralities. This kind of cleaning one’s transgressions has been used widely in different religions. For instance, baptism is seen as a way of washing away the sins of a believer, and this practice is common amongst Sikhs, Christians, and Mandaeans. Through faith, the physical washing of one’s body is believed to cleanse the conscience. The available research shows that people use bodily experiences like cleanliness and dirtiness to weave social perceptions associated with morality and immorality.
The use of particular words also contributes to the association between bodily experiences and morality. For instance, the words “clean” and “pure” point to the same state in bodily and moral aspects respectively. Additionally, the link between bodily and moral cleanliness affects the emotional condition of human beings. For instance, the word “disgust” can be used to describe experiences in both physical and moral domains. According to the available research, emotions related to moral and pure disgust affect overlapping brain regions, which explains why they may elicit similar facial expressions. As such, physical cleansing may also alleviate one’s moral disgust. This understanding may explain why Lady Macbeth claims that a little water will cleanse her after the murder of King Duncan. Therefore, this study sought to investigate whether when one’s moral purity is threatened, he or she experiences the increased need for physical cleansing. Additionally, the study wanted to establish whether such cleansing is effective in coping with moral threats.
Four studies were carried out. In the first study, 60 participants were used. In the second study, 27 individuals participated, 32 in the third, and 45 in the fourth.
Procedure and Materials
In the first study, a survey was used to determine if when one’s moral purity is threatened, he or she experiences increased mental accessibility of cleansing-related words. The participants were asked to remember an ethical or unethical action that they had done in the past coupled with describing the related emotions. Afterward, they were asked to join fragments of words to make complete words. In the second study, the participants were asked to hand-copy a story describing either an ethical or unethical act written in the first person. They were then asked to rate the desirability of different products on a scale of 1 (completely undesirable) to 7 (completely desirable). The participants in the third study were asked to repeat the recalling process of the first study after which they had to choose between a pencil and an antiseptic wipe as gifts. In the fourth study, the participants were required to recall and describe an unethical act from their past. Afterward, some cleaned their hands using an antiseptic wipe, while others did not. They were then asked to complete a survey on their current emotional state. Later, they were asked if they would volunteer in another study.
In the first study, it was established that the participants who remembered unethical actions from their past came up with more cleansing-related words as compared to their counterparts who recalled ethical deeds. Some of the word fragments used included W—H, SHE—R, and S—P. Individuals who recalled unethical deeds came up with words like a wash, shower, and soap. On the other hand, the participants who remembered an ethical deed wrote words like wish, shaker, and step among others. In the second study, the participants who completed an unethical story had high desirability of cleansing products like shower soaps, toothpaste, disinfectants, and detergents.
However, the participants who completed an ethical story had high desirability for other products like Snickers bars, Post-it Notes, Energizer batteries, and Sony CD cases among others. In the third study, the participants who recalled an unethical action from their past were more likely to take an antiseptic swipe at a rate of 67 percent as compared to their counterparts who remembered an unethical deed as they had a 33 percent chance of picking the same material. Finally, in the fourth study, the participants who cleaned their hands using an antiseptic wipe were less likely to volunteer as opposed to the rest of the group. 74 percent of the participants who did not clean their hands were willing to help as opposed to 41 percent of those who had physical cleansing of their hands. The results indicated that once one had recalled an unethical deed from the past, he or she was willing to help. However, after physical cleansing, the willingness to help dropped by 50 percent.
The authors of the article supported the hypothesis that physical cleansing can act as an antidote to one’s moral impurities. The four studies carried out showed that people would easily assuage their upsetting effects of unethical deeds and counter threats to their moral self-image. For instance, in the fourth study, the participants felt guilty of their moral impurity after recalling an unethical deed from their past (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). As such, they were willing to help as a way of compensating for their shortcomings. However, after washing their hands, the willingness to help dropped by half. This aspect indicates that cleansing their hands amounted to purifying their morals, and thus they did not see the need to help as a way of covering their unethical tendencies.
These findings are in line with the existing evidence on the same issue. A study carried out by Lee, Tang, Wan, Mai, and Liu (2015) showed that some culture-specific moral purification methods involve physical cleansing. In another article, Tang et al. (2017) argue that in East Asia, individuals associate cleaning the face with the improved public image of the self in what is termed as “face culture”. As such, when people act inappropriately, they tend to clean their faces as a way of compensating for their mistakes. One of the methodological problems with the current study is the subjectivity of the participants. Individuals can be biased and choose to act in a certain way due to other factors not associated with moral impurity occasioned by recalling an unethical deed. Additionally, the sample size was small and it may not be generalized in other set-ups. In the future, this problem can be addressed by having a large and representative sample to allow the extrapolation of results and reduce bias.
Lee, S., Tang, H., Wan, J., Mai, X., & Liu, C. (2015). A cultural look at moral purity: Wiping the face clean. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(577), 1-6.
Tang, H., Lu, H., Su, R., Liang, Z., Mai, X., & Liu, C. (2017). Washing away your sins in the brain: Physical cleaning and priming of cleaning recruit different brain networks after moral threat. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(7), 1149–1158.
Zhong, C. B., & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313(5792), 1451-1452.