The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0780 Tuesday, 12 September 2006
Date: Monday, 11 Sep 2006 17:21:17 -0700
Subject: "The Macbeth Effect"
Discoveries: Hand-washing may help cleanse conscience as well
Boston.com, Sept. 11, 2006 [Boston Globe, from Science magazine, Sept. 6]
By washing their hands, people might absolve themselves of their
misdeeds -- if only in their minds. This is the finding of researchers
from the University of Toronto and Northwestern University who explored
what they call the "Macbeth effect," a threat to one's moral purity that
incites the urge to cleanse oneself. In three studies, participants who
thought about unethical acts were more likely to behave in ways that
indicated they felt unclean. In one study, subjects recalling an
unethical deed from their past were more likely than subjects recalling
an ethical one to convert word fragments, such as W_ _ H and S _ _ P,
into cleansing-related words (wash and soap). In another study,
participants remembering an unethical act were more likely to request an
antiseptic wipe over a pencil as a free gift. A sense of uncleanliness
did not necessarily translate to more virtuous behavior, however: In a
fourth experiment, subjects who cleansed their hands after describing an
unethical deed were less likely to help a graduate student looking for
research volunteers than subjects who did not clean their hands.
Moral impurity does seem to be mentally linked to physical impurity, and
the act of washing one's hands seemed to "wash away moral feelings,"
said Chen-Bo Zhong, coauthor of the studies and a behavioral scientist
at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.
As the authors acknowledge, there are "limits to the absolution afforded
by a bar of soap." Indeed, 41 percent of the subjects who cleansed their
hands did volunteer to help the graduate student. It is also unknown how
subjects would have responded were they given the chance to help someone
they had acted unethically toward.
Zhong and coauthor Katie Liljenquist are investigating the link between
ethical behavior and cleanliness of one's surroundings, building on
previous studies of environmental appearance and personal behavior (such
as research into the "Broken Windows" theory of crime fighting).
WHERE TO FIND IT:
Science, Sept. 8.
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