Karan Verma

Views expressed here are mine alone

Feeling guilty or sinful? Just Wash your hands !!!

Feeling guilty or sinful? Just Wash your hands !!!

To err is human, but what’s the means of redemption after having made a moral mistake?
Guilt is a wasted emotion, but how do you wash it away.
A definitive answer from several studies in neuroscience – just wash your hands!

Whenever we make a mistake of behaving in a way that is contrary to our core beliefs & values, we experience the feeling of ‘Disgust’. It’s important to note that we also experience ‘Disgust’ when we feel physically ‘unclean’. Due to evolutionary reasons too deep to discuss here, the emotion of disgust is evoked by the same neural pathway in our brain – whether it is caused by physical ‘dirtiness’ or by moral ‘impurity’.

No wonder then, that time and again psychological studies show that people who are asked to remember a shameful or immoral task & immediately asked to wash their hands experience far less guilt & sinfulness compared to those participants who did not wash their hands – somehow, the brain interprets (confuses!) the act of physical cleansing with ‘moral’ cleansing, attenuating the emotion of guilt!

Similarly, participants in such studies who were asked to tell a lie to someone over a voice mail (thus using their mouth) showed disproportionately high preference for mouthwash, while people who were asked to lie over an email (thus using their hands) showed a much higher affinity for (any guesses??) hand-wash! Committing a guilt-ridden act, it seems, predisposes us to actively seek agents of physical cleansing!

It would be simple if the story ended there. But that’s just the beginning. Several studies have shown that people who have just been reminded of purity or cleanliness, end up making significantly harsher judgments about other people’s (!!) acts of violations & wrong-doings than otherwise likely.

Similarly, what did people do when they were invoked with a feeling of disgust (eg. using fouls smell agent, by showing disgusting pictures or video clips & in one case, using bitter-tasting substance) prior to being asked to make such a moral judgment about someone? Indeed, participants who were thus ‘primed’ with disgust were much harsher in their moral judgments compared to those who were not primed. Think about what this means in day-to-day life. And what it could mean in high stake situations like courtrooms. Or in the corporate ombuds-person’s cabin.

These aren’t a few, isolated studies. The theme recurs over and over again – much as we would like to believe that we are rational in our moral judgments, it has been shown that seemingly trivial events, even if completely disconnected with the moral decision at hand, can have a huge bearing over how we decide.

Studies show that when we are made to unknowingly smell citrus-cleaning agents, not only do we become more predisposed to keeping our surrounding clean, we also are more likely to behave virtuously & act with greater charity.

People placed in neat & orderly rooms end up making far healthier choices related to snacks but also show affinity for products marked ‘classic’ & act conservatively. On the other hand, people placed in cluttered, disorderly rooms show greater creativity in problem solving, willing to experiment & break the conservative rules & show affinity for products labeled ‘new’ & innovative.

Some of us are more susceptible to such ‘cognitive priming’ than others. People with adversely high hygiene anxiety & folks with obsessive personality show even higher degree of switch in their decisions.

Here’s another startling finding. If I read out an ambiguous profile of a fictitious person to you and ask you to judge whether you think favorably of this person or not, believe it or not, you are likely to think favorably of this person if I show a subtle thumbs-up sign while reading the profile. But if I read the same profile with a show of middle finger that is subtle (not well pronounced, but subconsciously noticeable), you are very likely to rate this same fictitious person as not favorable, or at least far less favorable.
Now you know what to do next time you are in a sales situation, or getting your annual review done with your boss- use that thumb!

What’s happening here?
The common theme across all of these findings is this: While we have always believed that it is the mind & it’s thoughts that affect behavior, the reverse is also true. Behavior, i.e. our actions (like hand cleaning) & other people’s actions & gestures can greatly affect how we think! Not only that, but seemingly non-trivial & random factors like a disgust-inducing picture or vdo we may have seen can influence the next decision we may make about someone or something.

And we love to believe we’re exercising free will.

Meanwhile, the Matchstick Men were perhaps right in suggesting that ‘Lie, Cheat, Rinse, Repeat’ works. Well, at least the ‘Rinse’ part works.

Next time you’re feeling unduly guilty, wash your hands. Better still, take a hot shower!

1. Wiping the Slate Clean : Psychological Consequences of Physical Cleansing (Spike W. S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz)
2. How extending your middle finger affects your perception of others
3. With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments
4. Does Disgust Influence Moral Judgment?
5. The Faintest Speck of Dirt : Disgust Enhances the Detection of Impurity
6. The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents: Promote Reciprocity and Charity
7. Washing away your sins
8. Body, Psyche, and Culture: The Relationship between Disgust & Morality
9. A Bad Taste in the Mouth: Gustatory: Disgust Influences Moral Judgment
10. Body of Thought (Scientific American Mind Jan/Feb 2011)


7 comments on “Feeling guilty or sinful? Just Wash your hands !!!

  1. Rach
    August 12, 2013

    Interesting !

    Hmmm…….don’t agree guilt is a wasted emotion !

    Any links of this research ? Are Indians / Asians part of this research ?

    Reminds me of visits by many to the Ganges to wash away their sins !

    Long discussion so won’t get into it here 🙂

  2. Karan Verma
    August 18, 2013

    Added the top 10 references I found useful for researching on this topic.
    Guilt is a ‘wasteful’ emotion in the sense that it’s inefficient to regret & feel awful about something done in the past, about which one can’t do much to change. It’s done.
    However, guilt is also ‘useful’ if directed towards relationship reparation, leading to renewed bonding – a cornerstone thinking extended by the famous Austrian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in her book in 1930s by the same name.

  3. Mike Lawrence
    August 23, 2013

    Wow…this is very good and helpful. Thanks. One thing….likewise religion is very good in “rinsing” guilt. When God forgives you, all your sins (guilt) are taken away. You feel clean and 360 degree changed inside out.

  4. Karan Verma
    August 26, 2013

    Thank you for your encouraging words – like Rach, you’ve also made the interesting point about the link between religious ritual & feeling of cleansing. This will make an interesting piece by itself, so will keep you posted!

  5. Pingback: Feeling guilty, wash hands but be careful

  6. Pingback: Feeling guilty, wash hands but be careful | NLP Techniques VaultNLP Techniques Vault

  7. Pingback: Feeling guilty, wash hands but be careful | Institute of Clinical Hypnosis

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This entry was posted on August 11, 2013 by in NeuroScience and tagged , , , .
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