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Can You Wash Away Your Troubles?

By: Denise Foley

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If someone had slipped Lady Macbeth some hand sanitizer, she might have been a much happier person. At least that’s the suggestion of a new study that found that washing your body can help you “wash away your sins.” Literally. People who physically wash themselves wipe the slate clean of guilt, fear and even doubts about past decisions. Next time you tell a lie, you may want to wash your own mouth out with soap to avoid the guilt.

University of Michigan researchers Spike W. S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz looked at dozens of studies that linked the idea of “moral cleanliness” with physical cleanliness. In one study, for example, people who were asked to recall an immoral act they’d committed felt less guilty about it after they were given an antiseptic wipe to use. In another, people told to tell a lie wanted either mouthwash or hand sanitizer afterward, depending on whether they had told or typed the lie. (Apparently, we need to cleanse the appropriate body part or it doesn’t work.)

So what sent researchers down this particular path of inquiry? “Many psychologists will tell you it has something to do with my mom,” laughed Lee, a doctoral student. “It’s not as crazy as it sounds.”

You see, Lee’s mother in Hong Kong is a clean freak. “If you get more than 2 feet into her apartment without taking off your shoes, she’s ‘No, no, no!’” he says.

Lee thought of her when he read a 2006 scientific paper that describes the psychological link between physical and moral cleansing, a nearly universal element of religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Researchers refer to this as the “Macbeth effect,” named after the aforementioned Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare fame, who tried to assuage her guilt at the wash basin (“Out, damned spot!”) after encouraging her husband to murder King Duncan. [Read a synopsis of the scientific paper here.]

No, Lee’s mother hasn’t done away with any royalty. But thanks to her, he did become intrigued with how we think about cleanliness and the ways in which that may have had some evolutionary advantages. “Think about what elicits the strongest disgust reactions in humans -- bodily fluids, feces, which are also harmful to us,” he explains. “If you touch them, you definitely want to purify your body so you wouldn’t be contaminated.” Making the metaphorical leap to include what we see as unclean acts came later.

Lee admits his main interest is in how humans think -- and behave -- metaphorically. And the metaphors we use aren’t limited to cleansing. “When we say ‘He is a very warm person,’ we don’t mean he has a high body temperature. We mean he’s psychologically social, cheerful and generous. When we say ‘We’re pretty close friends,’ we’re not talking about physical distance. We use the word ‘seeing’ as in ‘I see what you mean’ to mean understanding. On the average, people unconsciously use four metaphoric expressions a minute.”

In other words, studying the psychological effects of cleansing is a way to “see” how humans think and why they behave the way they do (so appropriate in an election year).

And our cleansing metaphor, rather than just giving us a physical way to get rid of guilt, helps us become better people, says Lee. “Cleansing plays an important role across all religions and cultures. It signals a new phase of life, like a reborn Christian, which gives you a new moral self-image to live up to.”

So if you’re feeling bad about something and want a clean slate, you may want to start with a shower.

Here’s how to wash away germs. (What you do about your guilt is up to you.)

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Denise Foley is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

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