A new study uncovers a hidden risk of showering: it could make you more judgmental.
Olivia Solon of Wired writes that Chen-Bo Zhong and colleagues at Northwestern University gave some subject wipes to clean their hands, while others remained uncleansed. Then they asked all the subjects to rate "the morality of six societal issues - smoking, illegal drug use, pornography, profane language, littering and adultery." The ones with the clean hands were way stricter in their judgments. In a related study, researchers gave some subjects a reading designed to make them feel squeaky clean ("My hair feels clean and light. My breath is fresh. My clothes are pristine and like new"), while others were "primed" to feel filthy ("My hair feels oily and heavy. My breath stinks. I feel so dirty"). Result: just reading about being clean made people more judgmental.
Zhong says, "Acts of cleanliness have not only the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgment of others." That is, when we think we're clean, we may actually think we're better than other people. I'd be curious to see how this study plays out in countries other than the Purell-obsessed United States — I have a hunch that we may moralize cleanliness more than other societies. And I wonder if this particular value is why some Americans react with superiority to the supposedly "dirty" conditions of other countries — do they feel not only cleaner than less-scrubbed cultures, but actually morally better? Whatever the case, it's clear that in order to become more empathetic and less judgmental people, we need to quit showering, wear dirty clothes, and embrace the filth. Who's with me?
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