Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Cleanliness Really Next To Godliness?

I am constantly on the lookout for new ways to motivate people to improve their behavior and build their character.

Now I have just found one more motivator to add to the list: citrus-scented Windex!

No, that is not a joke. It is a scientific fact. Were it not a fact I would not even try to make it a joke.

Researchers in three management schools collaborated on a project concerning the relationship between cleanliness and virtue. They studied the ethical responses of two groups of people in two different rooms. One of the rooms had been treated with citrus-scented Windex; the other not.

While the scent of the Windex was no longer discernible, the treated room smelled better than the untreated room.

The results of their experiments: people in the clean-smelling room were more likely to be fair, respectful, and generous. They were also more likely to respect the rules of reciprocity: as in, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Link here.

In other words, a clean room unconsciously motivates you to be your best self. Presumably, a squalid or malodorous room brings out your worst.

If, as the study demonstrates, clean smells induce good behavior, then cleanliness really is next to godliness.

Who knew?

Freud did not. As it happened, Freud believed that cleanliness was a sign of anal retentiveness. Hopefully we have all gotten beyond that insidious piece of slander.

Of course, the corollary of the new study suggests that if you are unkempt and ill groomed, this will induce you to behave badly. But if you take a shower and put on clean clothes, you will show more fairness, reciprocity, and generosity.

It is not for nothing that a well-groomed candidate will be hired ahead of someone who is slovenly. Not only does a disordered appearance bespeak a disordered mind but it also brings out your worst.

Why should this be so? It makes sense to say that people who make a point of being clean show extra respect for the sensitivities of others. Cleanliness also tends to attract other people.

The same rule seems to apply to ritual catharsis and atonement, to say nothing of religious cleansing ceremonies, like baptism.

Older research showed that when people felt badly for having made a mistake or done someone wrong they needed but to take a shower. They they would feel better and more moral. As though sins could really be washed away.

Of course, this is strange. It violates common sense. Do you believe that you can literally wash away a bad memory? Or, as the song has it, wash that man right out of her hair? Can you wash away a transgression or failure?

How can a physical action, like a bath, remove a mental stain? Could it be that philosophers who invented the mind/body problem have been torturing themselves for nothing?

Can we offer a cogent explanation for these facts? At the least, we can try.

Assume that when you are anguished, feeling guilty or ashamed, your mental state produces some kind of physiological process that causes you to emit an unpleasant or disagreeable odor. The more you are exposed to the odor, the worse you feel. The more others are exposed to the odor the more they avoid you.

To address your most reasonable objection, I would conclude by saying that when we are emitting such odors we are probably not aware of them, any more than we can consciously identify the scent of a pheromone.

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