The field of moral psychology has been home to some rather fun but still important experiments for the last few decades. These days moral psychologists look at the manner in which our moral judgments are automatic and contingent on various social contexts (Haidt, 2001) instead of how our moral decision making is mediated by rational thinking (Kohlberg, 1981). The automaticity of our moral judgments is driven by all sorts of things; from emotions to interpersonal relationships and from divinity (Haidt, 2006) to embodied metaphors (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
Out of all sources of influence on our moral behavior the embodied cognition is perhaps the least obvious but its impact is plausibly the most universal. The theory of embodied cognition roughly entails that the ways in which we relate to the world through our bodies shapes our thinking (Barsalou, 2008). It is not a coincidence that people associate spatially ‘up’ with good and moral and spatially ‘down’ with bad, evil, and immoral (Meier & Robinson, 2004, Meier et al., 2007). People typically think about good and bad in vertical terms because we operate in an upright position and it is easy for us to relate to our environment in terms of up and down.
Aside from spatial metaphors another embodied metaphor that recently has been the subject of much research is one concerning individuals’ desire to keep themselves free of contamination and associating physical dirtiness with moral impurities. The emotion of disgust is the prime natural system we have in keeping ourselves clean so that we don’t ingest something that is potentially harmful (Rozin et al., 2008). Curiously enough, to this basic evolutionary function of disgust we have also bootstrapped socio-moral disgust where we feel revolted at immoral actions of others.
Research on physical and socio-moral disgust has shown that quite often the disgust effect in one type of disgust carries over to the other, as per in accordance with the theory of embodied cognition. When participants in study were asked to read stories of moral transgressions while sitting at a table with used pizza boxes and dirty tissues they made more severe judgments about the actors in the stories compared to those who made judgments while sitting at a clean table (Schnall et al., 2008). In a similar study, when participants were asked to rate a series of stories for moral wrongness while being in a room that smelled bad (because of fart spray) or had no smell the ones in smelly room made harsher moral judgments compared to participants from clean room.
The results are clear; the more disgust we feel the more severe moral judgments we make regardless of what the actual source of disgust is. Now, if a disgusting environment results in more severe moral judgments then what about cleanliness? Would we see the opposite pattern where physical cleanliness would get linked with moral purity and people would render less severe moral judgments? Surprisingly, the answer is no!
To test out effects of physical cleanliness on moral judgments Zhong, Strejcek, and Sivanthan (2010), researchers at University of Toronto, Canada, and London business School, UK, brought half of 58 total participants to a computer lab and asked them to cleanse their hands with an antiseptic wipe before using the keyboard and mouse. The other half were not asked to clean their hands. Afterwards, all participants were asked to rate social issues of smoking, using drugs, pornography, use of profanity, littering, and adultery on the dimension of morality (-5: very immoral to +5: very moral). Astonishingly, the participants who had cleansed their hands gave more severe ratings on these social issues than those who had not.
Zhong et al. (2010) tried to replicate these unexpected findings by carrying out another study where 323 particpants were randomly assigned to one of three different visualization conditions and then asked to rate 16 different social issues on the same moral scale used in the previous study. In the clean visualization condition the participants were asked to visualize and type the statement “My hair feels clean and light. My breath is fresh. My clothes are pristine and like new. My fingernails are freshly clipped and good and my shoes are spotless. I feel so clean”. In the dirty condition participant had to type “My hair feels oily and heavy. My breath stinks. I can see oil stains and dirt all over my clothes. My fingernails are encrusted with dirt and my shoes are covered in mud. I feel so dirty.” The third condition was a control condition so the participants were not asked to visualize anything. The results of this experiment replicated the findings from the first as participants in the clean visualization condition gave more severe moral ratings compared to participants from other two groups.
For Zhong et al. (2010), these results make sense because the participants in the experiments implicitly came to associate self cleanliness with self moral purity, not general moral purity. As a result, having a pure moral self gave participants the license to make more severe moral judgments than in situations where their perception of self cleanliness was not manipulated.
This practice of people metaphorically associating physical purity with moral purity is quite harmful that one should take care in watching out for one’s day to day life. To live in a nice neighbored means that not only one is financially well off but also that one is surrounded by physical cleanliness. And although there is no real logical reason for believing so, one may implicitly come to assume that one is also morally superior than those from poor unclean neighborhoods. Qualitatively this type of reasoning is not that far off from the type of thinking engaged by architects and supporters of ethnic cleansing throughout history.
Barsalou, L.W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617-645.
Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Meier, B.P., Hauser, D.J., Robinson, M.D., Friesen, C.K., & Schjeldahl, K. (2007). What’s “up” with God? Vertical space as a representation of the divine. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 699-710.
Meier, B.P., & Robinson, M.D. (2004). Why the sunny side is up: Association between affect and vertical position. Psychological Sciences, 15, 243.
Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C.R. (2008). Disgust. In M. Lewis & J.M. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 757-776). New York: Guilford Press.
Schnall, S., Haidt, J. Clore, G.L., & Jordan, A.H. (2008). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1096-1109.
Zhong, C.B., Strejcek, B., & Sivanathan, N. (2010). A clean self can render harsh moral judgment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 859-862.