BENEDICT CAREY. New
York Times, September 12, 2006
cheats, philanderers and murderers are not renowned for exquisite personal
hygiene, but then no one has studied their showering habits.
may scrub extra hard after a con job, use $40 hyacinth shampoo after a secret
tryst or book a weekend at a spa after a particularly ugly hit. They are human
beings, after all, and if a study published last week is any guide, they feel a
strong urge to wash their hands — literally — after a despicable act in an
unconscious effort to ease their consciences.
it works, at least for minor guilt stains. People who washed their hands after
contemplating an unethical act were less troubled by their thoughts than those
who didn’t, the study found.
association between moral and physical purity has been taken for granted for so
long that it was startling that no one had ever shown empirical evidence of
it,” said Chen-Bo Zhong, an author of the new research and a behavioral
researcher at the
researchers call this urge to clean up the “Macbeth effect,” after the scene
in Shakespeare’s tragedy in which Lady Macbeth moans, “Out, damned spot!
Out, I say!” after bloodying her hands when her husband, at her urging,
murders King Duncan.
one of several experiments among Northwestern undergraduates, the researchers
had one group of students recall an unethical act from their past, like
betraying a friend, and another group reflect on an ethical deed, like returning
lost money. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, either a pencil
or an antiseptic wipe. Those who had reflected on a shameful act were twice as
likely as the others to take the wipe.
another experiment, the researchers found that students who had been
contemplating an unethical deed rated the value of cleaning products
significantly higher than peers who had been thinking about an ethical act.
have known for years that when people betray their values, they feel a need to
compensate. Christians who have read a blasphemous story about Jesus express a
desire to go to church more frequently; social liberals who feel they have
discriminated express an increased desire to volunteer for civil rights work.
“It’s sometimes called symbolic cleansing, or moral cleansing, and it’s an
attempt to repair moral identity,” said Dr. Philip Tetlock, a professor of
organizational behavior at the
enough, Mr. Zhong and Ms. Liljenquist found that students who had been thinking
about past sins were very likely to agree to volunteer their time to help with a
graduate school project — unless they had been allowed to wash their hands,
which cut their willingness to volunteer roughly in half.
people known to have expressed guilt over spreading rumors were asked to comment
for the record on the findings, but all declined. And efforts to contact hit men
to inquire about personal hygiene were deemed unwise; none had publicists.
Macbeth was available for comment. Liev Schreiber, who played Macbeth to
critical acclaim this summer at the Delacorte Theater in
was unusual — usually no one uses those theater showers,” Mr. Schreiber said
in an interview. “I had to shower. I was covered in eight gallons of fake
blood by the end.” He said he had no idea how much the cast’s cleansing was
because of to the moral horror of the play and how much was because of the muggy
way, the Macbeths, by the last act, have fallen to pieces, physically and
mentally, despite compulsive efforts to purge their sins. Mr. Zhong said in an
interview that for this couple at least, all the kingdom’s washbasins were not
enough to ease their consciences.
the murder of a king, he acknowledged, falls into a different category from the
confessed sins of the undergraduates, which included shoplifting, lying and
“kissing a married man.”
do believe there might be limits to how well simple hand washing can clean your
slate,” he said, “but it remains to be seen where that limit is.”