People might like you more when you get a little dirty.
Our language is loaded with common sayings that use cleanliness as a metaphor for goodness and virtue. When your hands are clean, or when you have a clean conscience, it means you aren’t guilty of a transgression. When you clean up your act, you become a better, more admirable person. On the other hand, dirty words are those that violate our standards of speech, and dirty tricks are underhanded and unscrupulous maneuvers. When you play dirty, it means you cheat. There is obviously a strong psychological association between physical cleanliness and our sense of not only what is good and bad, but also what is morally right and wrong.
But it turns out that cleanliness is much more than a metaphor for virtue. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how sitting on a hard chair can lead you to make more rigid decisions, and how holding a heavy clipboard can make what you’re doing seem more serious and important. Recent research reveals than your own cleanliness influences not only how virtuous you feel, but how harshly you judge the behaviors of others.
In one study, half of the participants were asked to clean their hands with an antiseptic wipe before using the keyboard to answer a series of questions. The researchers found those who had cleaned their hands subsequently rated behaviors like smoking, using drugs, looking at pornography, cursing, littering and cheating on your spouse as significant more immoral than those who had not cleaned their hands.
In other studies, people who simply spent a few moments visualizing themselves in a clean slate (“My hair feels clean and light. My breath is fresh. My clothes are pristine and new…. I feel so clean”) rendered harsher moral judgments on 16 issues, including abortion, homosexuality, obesity, prostitution, and masturbation, than people who had visualized themselves in a dirty state, or who did not visualize at all. They also rated themselves as possessing a significantly more moral character than their peers.
So being clean makes you feel like you are a better, more virtuous person, and that is probably on the whole a good thing. People who believe they are moral are usually more likely to behave morally. But there is a potential danger here as well. As the researchers write, “Our seemingly rational desires and acts of cleanliness have not only the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgment on others.”
When we are squeaky clean, we are more likely to adopt a self-righteous, less empathetic and understanding view of the shortcomings and foibles of others. We are more likely to see ourselves as morally superior to others, when we may in fact not be. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to far greater unhappiness, for you and for the people around you, than a little dirt under your fingernails or spaghetti sauce on your tie.
So if you want to lighten up a bit and not judge others so harshly, try getting just a little bit dirty. Perhaps more importantly, take a moment to think about the personal cleanliness of the important people in your life, like your boss, your spouse, your mother-in-law. You’d be wise to expect the clean freaks to take a less generous view of your lapses in judgment than those with a more relaxed approach to hygiene.
And finally, if there is something you need to confess to your romantic partner, try doing it before he or she gets into the shower.