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Surprising Science

Wash Your Troubles Away, With Soap

Metaphor is extremely powerful: By washing, people can remove a sense of immorality, unlucky feelings or doubt about a decision, say University of Michigan psychologists. 

What’s the Latest Development?

The bodily experience of removing physical residues by washing with soap can provide the basis of removing more abstract mental residues, finds a series of recent studies. Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan found that “people asked to judge the moral wrongdoing of others saw them as worse when exposed to an unkempt room or bad odor than when sitting in a clean room.” In another study, individuals asked to recall one of their own moral transgressions felt less guilty after using an antiseptic hand wipe. 

What’s the Big Idea?

If soap washes away the guilt associated with a moral transgression, can we conclude that frequent bathers lead happier lives? Not exactly, say researchers. “‘Cleansing removes the residual influence of earlier experience,’ says Lee. If that experience was positive, it would go down the drain too. In fact, washing one’s hands after reminiscing about a positive event limits the warm glow of happy memories, leaving people less satisfied.” The studies give a modern context to cultural rites like baptism, which washes sin away with water. 


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