Sunday, September 10, 2006

Soap For The Soul

The notion of spiritual and moral purification through rituals of physical cleansing such as baptism might be based on more than mere metaphor, suggests new research published in a recent issue of Science.

Religious traditions are rich with elaborate ceremonial rituals that the faithful undertake with deep symbolic reverence. Many of these rituals involve cleaning the body as part of the process of washing away moral stains on the soul. Perhaps the most obvious example in mostly Christian societies is the practice of baptism (which also forms part of the religious traditions of Sikhism and Mandaeanism).

If the ritual of baptism was just a metaphor for the remission and washing away of the sins of the soul, it wouldn’t much matter how the cleansing was achieved. But the different forms of baptism carry different symbolic messages: some baptism ceremonies merely demand that water be sprinkled onto the baptee’s head from above (representing the gift of remission from God above), whereas others go for full submission to denote the death and burial of Christ and his subsequent rise from the dead as the Holy Spirit.

At a theological level, the point of a baptism is not to give the recipient a good wash, nor is intended merely as a metaphor for washing away sins: it represents some of the core values and cherished beliefs of the religious community in which the ceremony takes place. But might there be deeper reasons why such cleansing rituals are so widespread at all? Could it be that actually getting cleaner during these acts of worship actually makes the recipient feel literally morally cleaner, and that’s why the idea of cleansing rituals so popular? The new study, by Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, provide some tantalising results that we really do behave as if soap and water can wash away a moral transgression (without even bringing God into the picture).

How might this work? Well, a lot hinges on the role and function of the universal human emotion disgust. Disgust is a strange emotion in that it can be aroused by a both physical objects (rotting carcases, bodily fluids and waste products and so on) and also people’s behaviour (rape, paedophilia and so on), unlike, say, anger: it doesn’t make sense it be angered by a rock, even if you stub your toe on it (though I admit I’ve shouted at a fair few number of inanimate objects). Psychologists have suggested that disgust originally evolved as protective gateway to the mouth: a mechanism to prevent the ingestion of dangerous foodstuffs (people around the world produce the same sort of facial expression as part of the disgust response). Later, the domain of disgust enlarged to include the social and moral domains, such that moral disgust became a defence against contamination and corruption of the soul. This connection is partially revealed by the habit of using many of the same terms for physical states that elicit disgust (dirtiness) for those that arouse condemnation (dirty behaviour) as well.

In fact, experiencing physical disgust produces bodily responses, such as facial expressions, similar to those caused by considering an immoral act. Even overlapping parts of the brain are activated by the two types of disgust reaction. So if similar brain areas and psychological states are activated by moral transgressions and physical dirtiness, then perhaps the intensity of the former could be reduced by acts that reduce the latter.

Zhong and Liljenquist call the phenomenon of trying to reduce the negative feelings associated with threats to moral purity the ‘Macbeth effect’. Striving to secure the throne for her husband, Lady Macbeth kills King Duncan, and tries to frame his servants for the murder. Racked with guilt, a somnambulant Lady Macbeth attempts to wash imaginary stains off of her hands, crying “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” – wash away the blood, and the guilt will cleaned away too. The results of Zhong and Liljenquist’s study raise the potentially unsettlingly possibility that Lady Macbeth might have had more success in easing her conscience than we would ordinarily credit.

In the first experiment, Zhong and Liljenquist explored whether a threat to our moral self-image prompts a desire for physical cleansing. Participants were asked to dredge up an instance from their biographies in which they had either acted ethically or badly, and to describe the experiences associated with those recollections. They were then presented with a world puzzle of six word fragments presented like a partially completed game of Hang Man. Three of the fragments could be filled in to produce a word related to cleaning (W_ _ H, SH_ _ER, and S_ _P can be completed as wash, shower and soap, as well as wish, shaker and step). Participants who recalled an unethical deed from their past were more likely to complete these three fragments to form the cleansing-related words.

Previous studies have shown that subtle priming of a topic, below the threshold of awareness of consciousness, can make other words, concepts and behaviour related to the prime more likely to surface by increasing the accessibility of these concepts and behaviour. The increased accessibility of cleansing-related words, primed by a threat to moral self-image, suggests that the protective Macbeth effect really does exist.

The second experiments further probed the Macbeth effect: does this increased accessibility to concepts related to cleanliness actually relate to an increased desire to clean oneself? (It’s possible that the effect of word recall would be unrelated to any actual behaviour.) After being instructed to hand-copy a short written story, in the first person, that depicted either ethical or immoral behaviour, participants had to rate a series of supermarket goods. Some of the items, such as shower soap, toothpaste and cleaning products, were related to cleansing, whereas others, including Post-It notes, fruit juice and batteries, were not. In line with the proposed Macbeth effect, copying out the unethical theory had the effect of making cleansing products more appealing.

But again, expressed preferences are one thing, actual behaviour another. So Zhong and Liljenquist looked at whether, after being put through the set up in the first experiment, participants would prefer as a free gift a cleaning-type product (antiseptic wipe), over something with no cleaning connotations at all (a pencil, which had previously been shown to be an equally attractive choice in a control condition). Overall, those that had recalled some of their unethical behaviour preferred the antiseptic wipe, which again points to the operation of the Macbeth effect.

But this isn’t the end of the story. If the Macbeth effect exists, it’s likely to have some function, one that is fairly obvious: to protect our moral self-image, often a crucial guide to navigating our social and moral worlds. Other research has suggested that we strive to restore our moral identity after ethical transgressions, spurred on by the emotional consequences produced by reflecting on our actions. Sometimes this takes the form of making up for a bad deed with a compensatory good one. There is also evidence that merely contemplating a threat to some cherished value produces a desire to act so as to reassert that value.

If moral threats and damage to our moral self-image can be deflected and thwarted in ways that either reaffirm our values or restore on moral selves, perhaps they can be averted and fixed by more symbolic means that exploit the overlap between the domains of physical and moral disgust. So a key question is whether the bodily cleansing induced by threats to our conception of our moral selves actually has the proposed effect of reducing the magnitude of the threat, and its unpleasant consequences. Zhong and Liljenquist capped off their study by addressing this central issue.

In the final experiment, participants were again asked to recall a bad deed from their past. Half then washed their hands with an antiseptic wipe while the others didn’t, and all were asked to fill out a form surveying their current emotional state. Finally, they were asked whether they would donate their time, free of charge, to take part in another study for a desperate graduate student.

The negative feelings aroused by contemplating behaviour which the participants were not proud of would presumably have led to a desire (conscious or not) to make amends by doing something that expresses the moral commitments they would prefer to see in their self-image, or to otherwise erase the stain of moral impurity through an act of cleansing. In this set up, the cleansing option was forced on half the study subjects, which had the effect of reducing feelings of the negative moral emotions of disgust, regret, guilt, shame, embarrassment and anger (non-moral emotions were unaffected). Mere hand washing also reduced the likelihood of offering help to the student in dire straits – if you’ve cleaned your conscience, there’s no defect in the moral self-image to fix.

The implications of the Macbeth effect, and this demonstration of its power to influence moral behaviour, is potentially alarming, and leads to a counter-intuitive thought. If is often supposed that observance of religious practices and rituals forms a core component of an ethically grounded life. But these results plausibly point to an entirely different conclusion. If threats to the moral self-image of individual religious adherents can be countered through cleansing rituals rather than actually amending the moral offence, and if such rituals make compensatory moral behaviour after an ethical blunder less likely, then a religious life could, all else being equal, make the devout less moral! This is another empirical question, and it is likely that other factors will feed into the overt moral behaviour we observe.

In any case, physical cleansing, even if intended as a symbolic offering of commitment, seems a rather cheap and easy route to moral rectitude. But at least it might help make sense of how many ostensibly morally upstanding and devout followers of various religions can also be capable of living with themselves and a range of moral misdemeanours and sinful behaviours, sexual and financial*. And the celebrity pages are replete with cases of decadent, immoral stars who have renounced their wayward pasts, and been born into the glory of God’s kingdom through the miracle of baptism, all beneficiaries of the Macbeth effect. Perhaps for the faithful cleanliness really is next to Godliness.

*Of course, the religious aren’t alone in such self-serving attempts to restore moral integrity with a quick fix. We can all imagine the ruthless, atheistic businessman who rips of poor nations left, right and centre and then makes a seemingly large but to him insignificant donation to charity (tax deductible, of course) to assuage his guilt, which might not even be consciously acknowledged.


Blogger FreezBee said...

Hi Dan;

Great article!

It may be worth noting that many words with have a non-physical meaning originally had a physical meaning. For instance 'purpose' is a corruption of 'propose', which really means '(to) put forth'.

This indicates that the current distinction we have between body and mind is of a relatively late date, and is therefore a cultural phenomenon - not something that exists independent of culture.

2:14 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Glad you liked the essay FreezBee! That’s an interesting point you raise, and I think a couple of people commenting on Pharyngula’s link to my essay made a similar point and cited Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (another book on my ‘to read’ list!). Sometimes though I get the impression that the ghost of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for strong linguistic determinism is lurking in the background of these discussions, and I’d like to exercise that apparition and then look at the cultural determinants of our conceptual schemas – as I’m sure they exist.

3:58 pm GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and also people’s behaviour (rape, paedophilia and so on)

When did paedophilia become a behaviour?

5:22 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Sorry, what’s your point? OK, so perhaps I was a bit loose in my use of the word ‘paedophilia’, which is a sexual desire, not a behaviour, but I was equally so with the word ‘rape’, which is an action (not really a type of behaviour). I would have thought it was clear, however, and despite my slip with words, that I was referring to instances of an individual’s repertoire of behaviours and actions, such as rape or the gratification of paedophilic sexual desires through exploitative imagery, or actual abuse – these acts, which form part of the person’s behaviour, are the sorts of things that often provoke disgust reactions directed at the offender. Of all the things one could pick up on in a study such as this, it seems remarkable to single out the contextually innocuous misuse of the word paedophilia. Perhaps you thought I was maligning paedophiles, who may well have sexual desires that are not acted upon, by implying that their desire was necessarily manifested in their behaviour. Good on you for fighting their corner.

9:02 pm GMT  
Anonymous Simon said...

Nice to see this blog resuscitate ;-)
The reference to religion in this study is misleading: the abstract of the paper -and your own summary- lead me to expect that the data would validate the jump that was made by the authors from the physical and moral associations of hygiene to the spiritual reasons for ablutions and baptism. However, the experimental design doesn't address religious practice at all. The authors actually "set out to investigate (i) whether a threat to moral purity activates a need for physical cleansing (i.e., the Macbeth effect) and (ii) whether physical cleansing is actually efficacious in helping people cope with moral threats." No reference to religion, unless you consider that perception of moral purity is equal to religion or that moral purity is a strong-enough predictor of religion (I doubt that you would!).

The authors conclude from their data that "daily hygiene routines such as washing hands, as simple and benign as they might seem, can deliver a powerful antidote to threatened morality, enabling people to truly wash away their sins." Note that they didn't offer the subjects to go on to pray, confess, receive holy communion or any relevant religious practice of which ablutions are only the physical and mental preparation.
You write, as the authors could seem to imply: "If threats to the moral self-image of individual religious adherents can be countered through cleansing rituals rather than actually amending the moral offence, and if such rituals make compensatory moral behaviour after an ethical blunder less likely, then a religious life could, all else being equal, make the devout less moral!".

The conclusions of their study demonstrate - and insist upon- the fact that such a behaviour is hard-wired in the human psyche.
However, this study does NOT address the effect of religion on that behaviour, because the study was conducted in a specifically non-religious setting (Dove shower soap, Crest toothpaste, Windex cleaner, Lysol disinfectant, and Tide detergent [...] Post-it Notes, Nantucket Nectars juice, Energizer batteries, Sony CD cases, and Snickers bars, not holy water and churches, nor wudu and mosques).

If one insists upon jumping on the 'religion' bandwagon here, a more intellectually honest proposition would be that religious hygiene practises may stem from a ritualisation of bodily hygiene because of the latter's association with moral cleansing. Not a conclusion that would sell articles to the reviewers, I don't think. It also supposes that one would make the effort to explain that physical, moral and spiritual practises may overlap, but are not strictly equal.

An interpretation would rather be that people who tend to wash more are more likely to suffer from moral guilt than those who lack personal hygiene, whether that sense of morality is linked to a particular religion, social context, or not. Sounds quite silly when kept in the realm of what this data really addresses...

7:11 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

For some reason a comment by Mike Jones was deleted as I tried to publish the comment - please re-send if you want it to go up here.

2:44 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Thanks for the comment Simon. I agree that because this study did not specifically address the question of whether religious rituals on moral behaviour, and so the conclusions that can be drawn are limited. This is why I spent the majority of the post discussing the study and it’s results in non-religious terms. The post opened with a discussion of religious rituals that have a cleansing element because they are well-known instances of cleansing rituals, and then offered as a hypothesis that, if the study’s results hold water, then such cleansing rituals might have the opposite effect – the Macbeth effect – to what we might expect. Notice I phrased this as “If X and if Y, then Z could be a consequence”. The effects of adherence to a religious lifestyle, with it’s concomitant ceremonies and rituals, on behaviour, moral or otherwise, awaits further study (there are a bunch of empirical questions about the consequences of religious and non-religious beliefs that need looking at).

I’m not so sure that anything about this research implies that the behaviour is hard-wired in an adaptive sense. I think that the capacity for pure disgust (to potential foodstuffs and other potential contaminants of the body) is an evolutionary adaptation with genetic and biological roots, and the capacity for moral disgust piggy-backs on this capacity. The fact that cleansing seems to reduce the threats to morality could plausibly be a by-product of the way these two systems work – that is, the Macbeth effect might not have been directly selected, but could just fall out of the way pure disgust and moral disgust operate. But it could still be part of the reason why cleansing in rituals are prominent in religion.

I see the links like this (and you will probably think that they are more tenuous that I do). Physical disgust and moral disgust utilise shared neurological machinery and psychological process, and so one can affect the other (feelings of disgust elicited by one thing can increase the severity of moral judgements of moral transgressions – other research bears this out). Physical cleansing can ameliorate the negative feelings elicited by a moral threat to the self-image, and can reduce the motivation to engage in moral behaviour. Religious rituals incorporate both physical cleansing and symbolic representations of some of the major tenets and values of the particular religious tradition to which they belong. Religious codes often embody a moral framework, and many people believe that a religious life gives grounding to our ethical actions. Perhaps actions that affect the moral identity of religious practitioners is positive ways would be become more common in religious traditions than we might otherwise expect. Given the central place of morality in religious worldviews, this doesn’t seem wildly implausible, and certainly deserves further empirical study.



8:17 pm GMT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lady Macbeth did not kill King Duncan. She couldn't kill him because he looked too much like her father. Macbeth commits the murder. He, however, because of nervousness returns to his chambers with the daggers. Lady Macbeth returns the daggers to Duncan's chambers and wipes blood on the guards.

2:59 am GMT  
Blogger JoseAngel said...

Actually, you could argue that in the Shakespeare scene you find both a statement (almost an analysis) of these primal psychological associations of purity, and an exposition of the psychological (not to say ethical) limitations of these rituals in terms of "placebo" effects.

11:56 am GMT  

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