A new study suggests you really can wash away your troubles. According to investigators, the metaphor reflects reality, and religious rites like baptism make psychological sense.
Doctoral student and researcher Spike W.S. Lee said: “Cleansing is about the removal of residues.” By washing the hands, taking a shower, or even thinking of doing so, “people can rid themselves of a sense of immorality, lucky or unlucky feelings, or doubt about a decision.
“The bodily experience of removing physical residues can provide the basis of removing more abstract mental residues.”
Researchers discovered environment influences judgment when they asked individuals to judge the moral wrongdoing of others. During the task, observers were more likely to see people as worse when exposed to an unkempt room or bad odor, than when sitting in a clean room.
In another study, participants asked to think of a moral wrongdoing of their own felt less guilty after using an antiseptic hand wipe; they were also less likely to volunteer for a good deed to assuage that guilt.
Moreover, investigators discovered imagining yourself as either “clean and fresh” or “dirty and stinky” affects your judgments of others. The “clean” participants in one study not only judged others more harshly, they judged themselves as more moral than others.
Cleansing also appears to help other mental discomforts, such as post-decision doubt.
To resolve this doubt, people who opted for one of two similar jams felt better about their choice after making the decision, a well-known tendency called choice justification.
But if people were given a hand wipe to use, they no longer justified their choice: They had wiped off their doubt. Using soap showed similar results after a bad luck streak in gambling: After washing, participants started to bet higher stakes, suggesting they had “washed away” their bad luck.
Still, researchers warn that we can’t conclude that people who bathe a lot are happier.
“Cleansing removes the residual influence of earlier experience,” said Lee. If that experience was positive, it would go down the drain too.
“In fact, washing one’s hands after reminiscing about a positive event limits the warm glow of happy memories, leaving people less satisfied.”