Academic journal article Studia Psychologica

Physical Cleansing Biases Recognition Performance for (Im)moral Social Issues

Academic journal article Studia Psychologica

Physical Cleansing Biases Recognition Performance for (Im)moral Social Issues

Article excerpt


The Link between Physical and Moral Purity

Previous research showed that the impact of physical cleansing goes beyond the reduction of physical contamination. The notion of a direct link between washing one's own body and moral purity is established in several religious ceremonies. It also became popular through William Shakespeare who described Lady Macbeth as being afflicted by a recurring need to wash her hands after the murder of King Duncan. Initial empirical evidence supported that a threat to one's moral purity evokes the urgent need to clean one's own body (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). Since then, several experimental studies have been carried out to examine the range of morality-related causes as well as consequences of physical cleansing. It has been shown, on the one hand, that immoral behavior increases the desirability of cleansing-related products (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006; Lee & Schwarz, 2010a). On the other hand, physical cleansing reduced the willingness to voluntarily help other persons after recalling an unethical deed of the past (Reuven, Liberman, & Dar, 2014; Xu, Bègue, & Bushman, 2014; Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). Obviously, hand cleansing can literally remove moral stains and restore one's moral self-image, making additional good deeds superfluous. This established link between physical and moral purity presumably derives from an ontogenetic process of concept coupling: while the concrete bodily state of physical purity is learned early in life, the abstract concept of moral purity may be built upon this sensorimotor experience later on (cf. Kaspar, Jurisch, & Schneider, 2016). This explanation is in line with what the concept of embodied cognition suggests (cf. Wilson, 2002): bodily actions or states, such as physical purity, represent embodied cognitive information. Correspondingly, activating the concept of physical purity can affect the evaluation of immoral social issues. For example, Zhong, Strejcek, and Sivanathan (2010) found harsher judgments about immoral social issues after participants had washed their hands. Also, Kaspar and Klane (2016) found that hand cleansing led to harsher moral judgments about politicians who allegedly committed a misconduct. Hence, information about one's physical purity is an embodied information cue that effectively expands to abstract cognitions.

Physical Cleansing and the Clean Slate Effect

Moreover, effects of physical cleansing have also been reported beyond the moral domain. Xu, Zwick, and Schwarz (2012) found that the experience of good and bad luck can be metaphorically washed away, indicated by subsequent decision making strategies. Florack, Kleber, Busch, and Stöhr (2014) used hand washing to reduce consumers' biased perception of product features derived from ownership. Lee and Schwarz (2010b) showed that physical purity can reduce post-decisional dissonance as participants showed a reduced need to devaluate non-chosen options after hand washing. Finally, Kaspar (2013 a) found an increased optimism regarding future performance in an anagram task when participants washed their hands after they had experienced failure in a preceding anagram task. All these effects indicate that physical cleansing can act as a very general ritual to close a matter (Kaspar, 2013a) and to induce a kind of a "clean slate" effect (Lee & Schwarz, 2010b) whose impact cannot be explained by the moral-purity metaphor alone.

Physical Cleansing and Information Processing

But what is the mechanism behind such effects and what does it imply for moral judgments? Kaspar, Krapp, and König (2015) recently hypothesized that effects of physical cleansing (on moral behavior and in terms of clean slate phenomena) reflect a change in the weighting or selection of cognitive information. They concluded:

"The hitherto reported effects showed that the act of cleansing did not literally wash away what had already happened in the past. …

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