SCIENCE SAYS: Cleanliness Really Is Next To Godliness, Sort Of

A new study found that feelings of cleanliness encourage ethical behavior, while feelings of disgust make it more likely that a person will lie and cheat.
Publish date:
November 14, 2014
cheating, studies, lying, ethics, cleanliness, selfishness, Disgust, Morality

Back in the 1700s, the long-haired party animal who founded Methodism, John Wesley, famously said, "Cleanliness is next to godliness." You may remember the phrase from such places as the backdrop in Hole's "Miss World" video, the title of this article, and not the Bible.

There's obviously many a hole that can be poked into that assertion; for example, there are plenty of religious people living in filth, and plenty of secular germaphobes. But let's say that, by "godliness," Wesley meant morality; it's completely feasible that he would see those as synonyms. And if he did, in fact, equate cleanliness with morality, dude was way ahead of his time.

A new study that will appear in the upcoming issue of the psychology journal "Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes" finds that feelings of cleanliness encourage ethical behavior, while feelings of disgust make it more likely that a person will lie and cheat under the circumstances they're in.

So, how did they figure out that people are selfish assholes when they're nauseated and really nice right after Lysol-ing their surroundings?

Researchers from Rice University, Penn State and Arizona State subjected 600 American men and women to a series of activities that put them in a disgusted state of mind. In one case, people were asked to evaluate products like diapers, maxi pads, and cat litter; some participants were asked to write essays about their most disgusting memory; in another case, they had to watch that one toilet scene from “Trainspotting,” which I re-tolerated only long enough to get the link because I cannot deal with it. Once grossed the hell out, they participated in experiments that analyzed their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain. The researchers found that the people who experienced disgust were much more likely to engage in selfish and arguably unethical behavior.

In another set of disgust-triggering tests, the researchers followed up with a different activity: participants evaluated products like household disinfectants and body washes. Doing this apparently neutralized the initial disgust and made the participants less likely to engage in deceptive behaviors.

It all comes back around to that age-old question: Why does diarrhea make us more likely to steal money?

“As an emotion, disgust is designed as a protection,” Vikas Mittal, a Rice University professor, said in a press release about the study. “When people feel disgusted, they tend to remove themselves from a situation. The instinct is to protect oneself. People become focused on ‘self,’ and they’re less likely to think about other people. 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.”

Mittal went on to explain, "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. If there is less likelihood to feel disgusted, there will be a lower likelihood that people need to be self-focused and there will be a higher likelihood for people to cooperate with each other."

Is anyone else picturing Ayn Rand pooping on her desk after reading that quote? No? Just me?

Anyway, as with so many behavioral studies, there's a call for self-awareness in the way we make choices.

"Small things can trigger specific emotions, which can deeply affect people's decision-making," Mittal says. "The question is how to make people more self-aware and more thoughtful about the decision-making process."

So basically, if you just stepped in a puddle of urine, take a moment to recognize the situation before giving into the sudden surge to rob a bank, I guess.

What are your thoughts on this study? Have you ever noticed a link between feeling clean and feeling virtuous?