Proposed: Morality < Cleanliness < Self-Respect


This is a response to “The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents Promote Reciprocity and Charity,” Psychological Science (2009) (lead author Katie Liljenquist) (see LiveScience writeup).  The paper says:

[C]lean smells might not only regulate physical cleanliness, but may also motivate virtuous behavior.  … [M]orality and cleanliness may also be reciprocally linked.  … [T]he current research identifies an unobtrusive way – a clean scent [apparently provided by a spritz of Windex] – to curb exploitation and promote altruism.  … The current findings suggest there is some truth to the claim that cleanliness is next to godliness; clean scents summon virtue, helping reciprocity prevail over greed, and charity over apathy.

The LiveScience writeup offers this additional observation:

A separate study last year at the University of Plymouth in England found that a vigorous hand wash or shower could cause a person to be less judgmental.

Theory:  cleanliness, per se, has nothing to do with it.  Cleanliness worked, in this experiment, because the subjects associated it with the behavior of upper rather than lower socioeconomic classes.  They were in an environment that smelled (albeit subconsciously) like it would be populated by self-respecting individuals.  In that setting, they probably adjusted automatically to the likelihood that they would have stood out, unpleasantly, if they had behaved as though they were in a less genial environment, and had then found themselves surrounded by people who had been socialized to prioritize the physical circumstances provided – who could afford, for example, to have the windows cleaned frequently.

Ways to test this:  (1) use participants who have not been socialized to associate Windex with higher socioeconomic status; (2) try it with non-olfactory environmental cues (e.g., kind of wall decorations or furnishings); (3) test other morals against other olfactory cues (e.g., smell of a doctor’s office vs. a restaurant re truthfulness).


One Response to “Proposed: Morality < Cleanliness < Self-Respect”

  1. 1 Katie

    Hi Ray, Interesting commentary. I’ve never considered Windex or cleaning supplies as an indicator of socioeconomic status, so I don’t know whether the average consumer equates cleaning products with status (even if it were an associate of socioeconomic status, I might not expect the same pattern of results–other research indicates that high-status indicators incite consumption and self-interested behaviors). Regardless, the power of scent to influence emotions, memories and current behavior is pretty remarkable. For example, in addition to our research on clean scents and morality, there’s fascinating research that shows aversive smells incite aggression (interesting to pair this research and consider behavior in prisons, cities with poor sanitation, etc.). Smells have the special ability to conjure up memories, emotions, and even certain mindsets. So the theory is that cleanliness activates a moral awareness (per your second suggestion, we’ve conducted studies with visual cues and replicated the same pattern of behavior)–perhaps the most compelling evidence of this is that cleanliness cues not only influence moral choices, but can subconsciously activate moral concepts as well.

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