A new bathtime dilemma

Both Proper Study of Mankind and Thoughts in a Haystack have summaries of this bizarre paper that was published in Science last week, showing a connection between a sense of cleanliness and ethical thought. I guess it’s not surprising that physical sensations impinge on unconscious decisions, but it is interesting in that it hooks into some cultural rituals. I’m not at all clear on what it means, though: should I skip out on taking a shower so I’ll feel more compelled to do good in thought and deed to compensate, or should I do pre-emptive washing so I won’t be hindered from skullduggery?


  1. says

    Lolz that is an interesting study.

    Perhaps the metaphorical link between feeling guilty and “dirty” has psychological roots. Repeating this study in, say Japan, will clarify if this depends on cultural context.

    Anyways I wouldn’t skip too many showers to enhance my compulsion to radiate goodness. It may enhance a number of other bodily effluxes.:P

  2. Tatarize says

    What’s more, it might explain why people are so quick to judge phyisically dirty people as ready to steal and kill.

  3. Steve LaBonne says

    This could be a very nice example of a feature of the way our brain works explaiing an important element common to many religious traditions. Dennett should be pleased!

  4. says

    That’s the thing: the link between being impure of body and impure of mind is deeper than mere metaphor (both activate overlapping brain regions, for instance). And the specific elicitors of moral disgust will almost certainly differ from culture to culture, just as moral codes and frameworks do. And not only might it explain why we’re so ready to judge the great unwashed as morally unworthy; it also points to the reason why physically degrading people (prisoners and other captives) by making them dirty and smelly is often a prelude to moral distancing, and eventual abuse, of the very same people. Notions of cleanliness and hygiene also link into ingroup/outgroup distinctions, with potentially pernicious effects (the consequences of parochial altruism are significant enough (see here for more); add this moral dimension in and you have a potential recipe for disaster.

    As for the implications for personal conduct – well, I guess the more we know about the way moral psychology operates in conjunction with social and cultural factors, the better chance we might have to notice when we’re being led by unreason and by the quirky biases and prejudices that come so naturally to humans.

  5. Steve LaBonne says

    As for the implications for personal conduct – well, I guess the more we know about the way moral psychology operates in conjunction with social and cultural factors, the better chance we might have to notice when we’re being led by unreason and by the quirky biases and prejudices that come so naturally to humans.

    That’s such an important point, and one that is so often gotten bass-ackwards by Luddites who are afraid of this sort of inquiry. The point of better understanding the biological basis of our behavior is so that we can be less constrained by it, not more, and better able to use our higher cognitive functions to override more primitive impulses. It’s very much not a question of saying “well, our biology dictates such and such, so it just can’t be helped.”

  6. Clare says

    Psychology is all very well, but how much anthropology made its way into this study? Anthropologists have been looking at notions of purity, purification, and its connection to morality, for literally ages, in a range of cultural contexts. Anthropologist Mary Douglas was writing about this kind of stuff in the 1970s (need to find out if/where relevant work is available online). Also, are we really surprised nowadays to find that metaphors aren’t *merely* metaphors (“Metaphors we live by” by Lakoff and Johnson anyone?) I plan to read the original article, but these are the concerns I’ll bring to it…

  7. Steve LaBonne says

    Yes, I immediately thought of Lakoff and Johnson. The difference between them and some of the anthropologists is that Lakoff and Johnson are not at all resistant to investigation of the role of neurophysiology in these phenomena.

  8. Dave says

    Wow, this is why I always feel a desperate need for a shower after a one night stand.

    Seriously though, I would hardly call being able to shed the guilt of a wrongful act simply by washing up with soap and water “ethical though.” This seems more unethical to me.

  9. says

    Clare, the study draws on work by social and cultural psychologists and anthropologists – in fact, the idea that a moral domain exists called the ethics of divinity (which is concerned with moral purity), violations of which elicit disgust reactions, is based on cross-cultural studies. (Whereas many people in Western societies are guided by the ethics of autonomy (individual rights and responsibilities) and the ethics of community (social obligations and hierarchy), other societies place a much greater stress on the ethics of divinity (such as Hindu communities in India, where worries of contamination by coming into contact with untouchables reflects such a concern).

    If you can’t access the study I’ve writtena detailed essay on my blog – feel free to make an anthropological cotribution there.

  10. inge says

    My first idea when reading that was: questionable conduct -> stress -> perspiration -> clammy hands -> wash hands. Probably too simple…

  11. Carpenter says

    But what about all the Catholic ascetics? St Anthony went out into the wildernedd and never washed himself. According to legend, one saint allegedly sat on a pole for 20 years, he was so dirty worms would fall off of him. Another nun showed her devotion to God by ingesting all sorts of unclean things, dirt, vomit, creepy crawlies. Thier filth was a measure of thier devoution. Many traditions, Jews, catholics, Hindus have had mystics that purposly break all the physical rules of cleanliness as part of thier spiritual cleansing, some mystics have even eaten meat off of funeral pyres.
    Also what about when people in western Europe didn’t really bathe becuase the water was bad? Was there a differnt attitude about dirt and spiritual purity?

  12. Steve LaBonne says

    That’s what makes this kind of thing so tricky (and really bedevils the dog’s breakfast known as “evolutionary psychology”.) Cultural motifs can be very widespread but rarely if ever are truly universal.

    In at least the aversion-to-baths aspect of this particular Christian case, I think it could be argued that notions of ritual purity that may have been inherited from Judaism were overbalanced by the pagan associations of Greek and Roman baths, which made bathing seem an immoral luxury for the more strenuous Christians.

  13. says

    jeeze pz, how come you didn’t highlight this quote from PSOM? You must be having an off day.

    If is often supposed that observance of religious practices and rituals forms a core component of an ethically grounded life. But these results plausibly point to an entirely different conclusion. If threats to the moral self-image of individual religious adherents can be countered through cleansing rituals rather than actually amending the moral offence, and if such rituals make compensatory moral behaviour after an ethical blunder less likely, then a religious life could, all else being equal, make the devout less moral!

    Makes a hell of a lot of sense to me.

  14. says

    I’ve read — Straight Dope? — that European stink reached a high point in the Renaissance, with beliefs that public baths spread the plague, or something.