Do you find Rush Limbaugh more palatable after vs. before taking a bath? Might you be more inclined to linger on the Bill O’Reilly Show while channel flipping in a recently-mopped and cleaned room compared to a dirty and disheveled one?
Perhaps you just might. At least, that’s what recent research from Cornell’s Erik Helzer and David Pizarro suggests. Their just published study showed that reminding people of physical cleanliness made them report being more politically conservative and also led them to make harsher moral judgments when considering mildly perverted sex acts.
The study builds upon work showing links between moral judgment and the subjective experiences of bodily purity and visceral disgust. Recent studies have shown that individuals who experienced disgust in response to foul odors or by sitting at a dirty desk, judged the moral transgressions of others far more harshly compared to controls. The general idea behind these and other studies is that moral judgments are in part based on emotional responses which originally evolved for other purposes. For example, visceral disgust — say, the kind one might experience when smelling rotten meat — likely evolved as a means of detecting and avoiding harmful pathogens. The argument, as it goes, suggests that self-reported moral disgust responses to, for example, a visible display of homosexual affection (two men kissing) could be subserved by the same system from which “visceral disgust” responses emerge. The current study builds on this work with a crafty two-part experiment.
In the first study, participants were approached in the hallway of a campus building and asked to complete a questionnaire, which asked three questions about political orientation. Participants were instructed to stand either near a hand sanitizing station (the experimental condition) or step over to a wall where there was no hand sanitizer nearby (the control condition) to complete the questionnaire. Those who stood near the hand sanitizing station rated themselves as being more conservative than the control group.
In the second study a wall sign commanding researchers to “use hand wipes” before typing at a computer served as a reminder of cleanliness. Additionally, while the moral judgement task was introduced, participants were asked to use a hand wipe before starting. In the control condition, there was no sign and subjects weren’t asked to wipe their hands. First, participants filled out the political orientation questionnaire from experiment 1. As in the first study, participants in the cleanliness condition rated themselves as more conservative. Then participants engaged in the moral judgment task in which they were asked to rate their moral approval of sex-related items, such as:
“A woman enjoys masturbating while cuddling with her favorite teddy bear”
“After a late-term miscarriage, a woman asks her doctors to take a picture of her cradling the miscarried fetus.” (phew!)
Participants who received the cleanliness reminder issued harsher moral judgments of sexual acts than the control group. As a within-group control, both groups were also asked to rate their level of approval of non-sexual but purity related items such as “As a practical joke, a man unwraps his office mate’s lunch and places it in a sterilized bed pan” and non-sexual, non-purity related items that described people lying on their taxes, or forging a reference letter. For these latter two groups of items, there was no difference between control and experimental groups. Only the sexual items were rated more harshly by those in the “cleanliness” condition. In sum, reminders to maintain cleanliness led to increased conservativeness and harsher moral judgments for sexual violations of purity but not for non-sexual and/or non-purity related violations.
The paper adds to the growing body of work supporting the idea that moral condemnation may have evolved by piggybacking onto evolutionarily older systems originally dedicated mainly to survival via “literal” pathogen avoidance and concern with personal cleanliness and only later being adapted for a more uniquely human purpose. One big question that emerges from this work is: what comes first? The cognitive disposition or the ideology? The author’s suggest that the evidence supports a bidirectional explanation. Beyond that it’s mostly speculation.
Also unclear is the question of the relationship between moral condemnation and moral behavior. Does one predict the other? Conservatives often describe themselves as adhering to higher moral standards when it comes to sex than liberals. And they tend not to be supportive of “alternative” lifestyles, especially romantic relationships between homosexuals. Conversely, most liberals take pride in their embrace of a wider range of lifestyle choices and more progressive sexual attitudes. But, this is not to suggest that either conservatives’ or liberals’ attitudes necessarily maps directly on to their behavior. People sometimes say the wrong thing and do the right thing. Or, conversely, say the right thing and do the wrong thing.
Helzer EG, & Pizarro DA (2011). Dirty Liberals!: Reminders of Physical Cleanliness Influence Moral and Political Attitudes. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 21421934