Could It Be That Easy?

The research found a dramatic improvement in ethical behavior with just a few spritzes of citrus-scented Windex. … [To appear in] a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. … “Could be that getting our kids to clean up their rooms might help them clean up their acts, too.”

The study titled “The Smell of Virtue” was unusually simple and conclusive. Participants engaged in several tasks, the only difference being that some worked in unscented rooms, while others worked in rooms freshly spritzed with Windex. …

Subjects in clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, returning a significantly higher share of the money.  The average amount of cash given back by the people in the “normal” room was $2.81. But the people in the clean-scented room gave back an average of $5.33. …  Participants surveyed in a Windex-ed room were significantly more interested in volunteering (4.21 on a 7-point scale) than those in a normal room (3.29).  22 percent of Windex-ed room participants said they’d like to donate money, compared to only 6 percent of those in a normal room.

Follow-up questions confirmed that participants didn’t notice the scent in the room and that their mood at the time of the experiment didn’t affect the outcomes. … Their 2006 paper in Science reported that transgressions activated a desire to be physically cleansed.

More here and here.  Wow – these are big effects, via such a simple and easy treatment!

In my experience, the touchy-feely folks who talk the most about wanting to encourage more trust and charity do not get along that well with the anal folks who want everything to be very clean.  So I expect the first group will be reluctant to accept that this second group has been right all along – they want more charity their way, via folks feeling guilty, not via folks feeling clean.  So even if this study is confirmed by further research, I expect lots of resistance to its policy implications.  After all, politics is less about policy, and charity less about outcomes, than about who should be admired.

Hat tip to Bruce Bartlett.

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  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    So cleanliness really is next to godliness!

    I’ve read that our physiological and moral disgust reactions are essentially the same in the brain – suggesting that moral disgust was a hack built on top of a reaction that was already there. Same could be true for our sense of moral and physiological purity.

    Not surprising then that priming the physiological aspect of these intuitions impacts the moral one.

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  • blink

    Is there a plausible mechanism to explain how this would develop? I doubt the Windex scent played an important role in the evolutionary environment. Moreover, this is troubling; what hope have we of overcoming bias if random smells or even the temperature can affect our judgments?

    • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

      How about ambivalence as the mechanism

  • JU

    What if we help the homeless by giving them showers? Would this change their behavior to one another and to the public? How about with felons? Prison air fresheners?

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Presumably, it’s any clean smell. You don’t nick stuff from the palace.

  • http://bizop.ca michael webster

    This research, part of embedded cognition theory, is fascinating. I don’t know what to make of it, right now. But many of the results are baffling -like this one. I wonder if they didn’t have to touch the money whether the effect would work?

  • Frank

    Equating homeless with convicts and their condition with some kind of moral problem, real nice buddy.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      I was homeless, thankfully very briefly, around my 21st birthday. Most of the homeless are homeless for the same reason most criminals are criminal – poor impulse control and not too bright. Shit can happen to anyone, but for the majority the homeless earned their position. And it is only a **moral** failing if they take others (such as, too often, their kids) down with them. Like being in the bottom quintile of income, most homeless are that way only for a while, especially when young, even those with poor impulse control and not too bright tend to grow out of it though they are more vulnerable to reverses than others. And the actually mentally ill, who are a small proportion of the homeless, though a much larger one of those persistently homeless.

    • JU

      You say that like it’s something bad in and of itself. And what does it mean to equate the two? They are similar in that both the homeless and convicts (while in prison) tend to act less socially virtuous than everyday people. I do not think homelessness is caused by lack of virtue (though it can be), but I think the period when someone is homeless can lead them to become cynical and angry in a way that hurts themselves. Buddy.

  • http://www.davegottlieb.com/blog/ Dave Gottlieb

    This is why you should always clean thoroughly before your poker game.

  • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

    Sound kind’a sneaky does it not? However, I have to admit that lately I have been feeling kind of cranky. I think I will try a new deodorant. I will keep you posted.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Could this be related to the broken windows effect?

    • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

      I like that idea. People who are more likely to break the rules when other people are breaking them (seems a sensible strategy to not be a dupe for no good reason).

      If the same response is triggered in the brain by disgust at misconduct and disgust at filth, then we might be primed to misbehave in response to both.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    There’s something even bigger going on here. Lots of coordination problems involve getting rid of something smelly — among a group of roommates, who’s going to take out the garbage that’s piling up? Who’s going to clean the dishes that are starting to grow gray fuzz? Who’s going to scrub the toilet and mop the bathroom floor? Who’s going to make a dent in all that smog or other olfactory pollution being pumped out?

    Game theory tells us how difficult these problems are. But now on top of that, we have another source of positive feedback between failing to coordinate and making the problem worse — if we don’t coordinate, the stank grows fouler, and that just makes us even less cooperative and trusting of one another, ensuring the odor will get worse still, etc.

    • anon

      We knew already that clear signs of disorder can discourage coordination and have a compounding effect; that’s the “fix broken windows” theory of urban crime which has been confirmed by a number of experiments. The new study referenced in the OP shows that even slight, unnoticed changes in cleanliness or dirtiness can have a big effect on social coordination.

      • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

        Wait, you didn’t get what I said. Broken windows aren’t smelly, so this study doesn’t say that broken windows will be worse than we already thought. However, offenses that are smelly will make us even less cooperative than other failures to coordinate — there’s the effect we expect from merely witnessing the failure, *plus* the foul smell lowering cooperation even lower.

        So, coordination that involves making something less stinky will be even harder than you’d think based on broken windows alone.

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  • http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory Chris

    “Embedded cognition theory?” No. They don’t even cite Damasio, and that theory is pretty under the radar. It doesn’t really exist in the literature, in fact.

    This research is more related to two recent strains. The first, in moral psychology, focuses on emotions and morality. Cleanliness, disgust, contamination, etc. figure largely in this literature. The second is Lakoff’s work on conceptual metaphors and the way in which bodily experiences tend to activate conceptual representations.

    As for the actual research itself, I’m somewhat skeptical for a couple reasons. The first is statistical: the effect size is pretty small in the first study (Cohen’s d = .47), so I’d focus on the first. And in the first, there’s a ton of noise, especially in the neutral room condition (the standard deviation is much higher in the neutral room condition in both studies, strangely). I’d love to see their data, because high standard deviation (2.81 with a mean of 2.81) with such a small sample (n=14), and the huge effect size not just for the manipulation but for that task in general, suggests there might be something going on. Outliers? Bimodal distribution? Something.

    The second is that there’s no real theory of how cleanliness, or smells, or Windex in particular, could activate moral concepts/behavior. So we really have no idea what’s going on here. It may be something as simple as the smell heightening arousal, in which case, providing any mildly arousing stimulus could produce similar affects. In fact, to do a proper experiment, you’d have to include such a condition.

  • John Maxwell IV

    I wonder if I can induce a similar effect in myself by sucking on mints or something. I certainly have noticed that taking regular showers and wearing a decent pair of jeans results in increased confidence 🙂

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Maybe people were generous because they were less rational, because they were high on Windex fumes.

  • Marc

    Tying in to what you were saying about global warming, I wonder whether the effect works in reverse. Human behaviour does seem to have a strange relationship with causality; being confident leads you to stand up straighter, but standing up straighter leads you to feel more confident.

    If cleanliness causes ethical behaviour, I wonder if people equate ethical behaviour causing cleaniness.

    That would explain why environmentalists are so positive about limiting carbon emissions (the cleanliness of reducing carbon being a short hand for ‘ethical’) but so negative about geo-engineering (making the planet ‘dirtier’ can’t be ‘ethical’) when both policies are intended to fight the same menace of global warming.

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