Cleanliness really is next to godliness

Finding a dime in a phone box, not being in a rush, having other people nearby, background noise — these are all things that unconsciously affect our moral behaviour, scientists claim.
The latest addition to this list, according to Brigham Young University’s Katie Liljenquist, is being in a clean-smelling room.

Subjects in Liljenquist’s study played a very simple “trust game.” They received $12 and were told it was from a participant in another room who trusted them to divide it between the two of them however they saw fit. They then got to decide how much money they would keep and how much they would return. Subjects in a room that had been freshly spritzed with citrus-scented Windex opted to give back a significantly higher proportion of the money than those sitting in a “normal” room. Interestingly, the average amounts given in both conditions fell below the fair halfway mark, with the Windex-group giving back an average of $5.33 and the control group giving back $2.81 on average. Still, the Windex group behaved more fairly than the control. Perhaps future experiments with brand and scent could find a way to get the average up to $6.

A second study by Liljenquist surveyed student’s interest in volunteering for and donating money to Habitat for Humanity. Again, those in the Windexed room expressed more interest in both volunteering and donating money to the cause than those in the normal room. 22 per cent said they’d donate money, compared to only six per cent in the control condition.

Last year, researchers at the University of Virginia found that priming study participants with words related to cleanliness (such as “pure,” “washed,” “immaculate,”) led to less severe moral judgments. Furthermore, a previous paper by Liljenquist published in Science reported that the feeling of having committed a moral transgression was associated with the desire to be physically cleansed (reminiscent of Lady Macbeth’s continuous hand washing after the murder of Duncan).
Windex is not the only smell that researchers have found with the potential to induce moral behaviour. Psychologists have demonstrated that passers-by were more likely to give change to someone standing outside of a nice-smelling business, such as a bakery, when compared to someone standing outside of a shoe store, for example.

What drives these unconscious factors to influence our behaviour? One thing that many studies have in common is the experimental manipulation’s influence on mood. Finding a dime, a pleasant smell, not being rushed, being given cookies (this was another study) — these are all things that increase both moral behaviour and (potentially) a person’s mood.

Since there are many studies that have suggested a direct influence of mood on morality, perhaps we should consider mood as a mediator between an unconsciously perceived experimental manipulation (such as a Windex smell) and moral behaviour. In other words, being in a good mood increases moral behaviour. This of course begs the question as to why positive affect influences moral behaviour, and no scientific consensus on this question exists as of yet.

Still, the findings of Liljenquist’s and other’s studies may have some important practical applications. “Companies often employ heavy-handed interventions to regulate conduct, but they can be costly or oppressive,” said Liljenquist. “This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behaviour.”

Or, as writer and satirist P.J. O’Rourke put it: “cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.”