Isn’t it interesting how quickly we can judge people based on just their external appearance and their actions. I am more than certain that there are millions of stories running in your head right now about how this picture came about or what its trying to say. If not, I am pretty sure you’ve already settled on this man being a disgrace and that he may be out of his mind (sticking out a gun that way while having a pregnant woman in his arms).
Being Filipino, with a thriving interdependent and morally grounded culture, it would be normal for us to think that this image would be quite discomforting.
But, would you believe me when I say that this right here would twist your judgment altogether?
That’s right, soap.
This is no figure of speech! Recent studies have in fact shown that there does exist a relationship between physical cleanliness and moral and spiritual purity in a number of cultures. A study conducted by Schnall,S., Benton, J., and Harvey, S. investigated on the effects of physical cleanliness on moral judgment. They worked around the findings of past studies that disgust would increase the severity of moral judgments and determined whether the reverse effect would take place: if cleanliness (signifying purity) would decrease the severity of moral judgments.
“Disgust” was said to be originally used to pertain to an emotion to protect the body from germs or other filthy objects. Eventually, its definition spread to moral and social domains. People from different cultures would now use this word to pertain to morally and socially disturbing situations. Hence, it is not grammatically incorrect if we say that Hayden Kho’s little video stint was disgusting.
The researchers carried out two experiments to see whether their hypothesis holds true. The first was done to test whether cleanliness induced any specific mood, and if there did exist a relationship between intuitive concepts and moral judgments; the second was done to investigate whether the physical act of cleansing would decrease the severity of moral judgments as compared to not being subjected to the behavior of cleansing.
Results show that emotion did not have an effect in their judgment. Instead, the act of being primed to words that are associated with cleanliness showed a direct effect on lessening the severity of their judgment. Actual washing of the hands (cleansing behavior) did show a significant effect on lessening the severity of moral judgment, compared to not washing your hands.
The researchers attribute this effect to the notion that purity acts as a “basic intuition when judging the moral quality of an action” (Schnall, Benton & Harvey, 2008). This notion of purity may stem from mere priming and acts of cleanliness. People tend to infer moral judgments based on intuitions, even though these intuitions have no relationship whatsoever to the moral topic at hand. Our ability to quickly judge or infer may actually take place outside the scheme of consciousness (Schnall, Benton & Harvey, 2008).
In other words: what you don’t know you know actually affects what you are likely to know (as right or wrong), you know?
How useful are their findings to our everyday life?! Who would’ve thought that the mere act of thinking about things related to cleanliness may already affect what you think is right and wrong? The effects of unconscious thoughts to our perception never seem to fail me.
Having said all that, here’s a little reminder of how you can lessen the severity of your moral judgment (aka what you do when you find out that your crush is actually evil):
Schnall,S., Benton, J., and Harvey, S (2008). With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments. Psychological Science 19 (12) 1219-1222. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02227.x