Health & Wellness

Clean home, clean conscience? Spotlessness may lead to ethical behavior

Scrubbing your bathroom and vacuuming the carpet could mean more than a spotless home — it could lead to a cleaner conscience. 

General cleanliness lends itself to ethical behavior, according to a new study, while feelings of disgust and uncleanliness were more likely to lead to immoral behavior like lying and cheating.

Researchers conducted experiments with 600 male and female participants and found that after participants were deemed to be effectively “disgusted” by gross images, products or memories, their responses were significantly more selfish and deceptive.

The antidote? Thinking about cleaning put them back on the straight-and-narrow.

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Just thinking about cleaning was enough to reverse the negative effect of disgust, researchers found.

"As an emotion, disgust is designed as a protection,” Vikas Mittal, professor of marketing at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and one of the study’s three co-authors, said in a statement. “When people feel disgusted, they tend to remove themselves from a situation.” 

The experiments included evaluating particularly unpleasant consumer products like antidiarrheal medicine, diapers and adult incontinence products; writing essays about their most disgusting memory; and watching a nauseating toilet scene from the movie “Trainspotting.”

In a separate set of experiments, after being thoroughly grossed out, people were asked to evaluate cleaning products like disinfectants, household cleaners and body washes. 

Participants’ behaviors were radically different. Responses to questions about cheating or lying for financial gain were deemed significantly more “deceptive” in a state of disgust than in a neutral or pleasant state of mind.

Mittal said these responses have to do with a person’s instinct to protect themselves against extreme unpleasant feelings, therefore prompting immoral and otherwise hostile behavior. 

“Small cheating starts to occur. If I’m disgusted and more focused on myself and I need to lie a little bit to gain a small advantage, I’ll do that. That’s the underlying mechanism,” said Mittal. 

The deeper meaning of the findings, he said, is to assert that strong emotions can be triggered by normal daily rituals, like reading the newspaper and listening to the radio. It suggests that a clean workplace could even affect an employee’s willingness to cooperate with coworkers and produce more positive results.

“At the basic level, if you have environments that are cleaner, if you have workplaces that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted," said Mittal. The study, released Tuesday by Mittal and colleagues at Penn State and Arizona State, is set to be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Erik Helzer, Ph.D., assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, studies moral character, ethical behavior, and self-and-social assessment. He said through this study and similar laboratory studies conducted to measure the effects of cleanliness on a person’s morals and ethics, research has generally found that cleanliness does affect behavior.

“When we’re feeling disgusted or feeling pure, there’s a tendency to think differently about the world around us than we might feel in the absence of those feelings,” said Helzer, whose past research includes the influence of physical cleanliness on moral and political attitudes.

“It’s also important to recognize that the effects of purity may not be inherently moral,” he said. In his own research, Helzer studied the connection between political values, cleanliness, and perceived morality, which is subjective and depends on the participants’ political beliefs.  

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