In the 1997 movie "As Good As It Gets," Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, an acerbic and self-centered writer who also happens to be extremely obsessive-compulsive.
One of the points at which the plot turns is when Melvin agrees to dog-sit his neighbor's Brussels Griffon, allowing the little canine into his hermetically sealed inner sanctum.
Nicholson/Udall starts out as a man without regard for others, a man without morals, whose cleanliness is a counterbalance to his lack of concern or compassion. (Of note, perhaps only to me, is that the title of the movie was translated as "Mr. Cat Poop" in Hong Kong, as "Melvin" in Cantonese apparently sounds a lot like the word for feline excrement.)
Recent research reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, has found an empirical relationship between cleanliness and moral judgments. Apparently research subjects who had a greater subjective or cognitive sense of being clean were less inclined to exercise a harsh moral judgment upon someone else.
There were two main experiments conducted. In the first, subjects were divided into two groups; one group was asked to wash their hands, while the other was not.
Both groups then watched a "disgusting" three-minute scene of heroin addicts from the 1996 Scottish film "Trainspotting." The addicts were doing a variety of morally questionable things such as stealing money from a wallet, lying on a job application and cooking and eating the family dog. (Did I mention morally questionable?) When the subjects rated the actions, they all felt them to be wrong. But the group that had washed their hands rated the actions as significantly less wrong on a 1-9 scale.
The second experiment involved priming one subject group by having them read and choose words in a scrambled sentence task suggesting cleanliness, words such as "purity," "washed" and "pristine."
The comparison group had neutral words to read and work with. The two groups were then asked to rate a series of moral dilemmas. Again, the group that had exposure to the "clean" condition rated the people who behaved immorally more leniently.
The researchers were somewhat concerned about this. The lead author, Dr. Simone Schnall, noted that while most of us feel that we deliberate in a rational, conscious manner when making moral judgments, the research suggests we are influenced by subconscious feelings of being clean or dirty. The team felt this could be particularly problematic in the circumstance of a jury deliberating, or when voting for politicians who have committed a wrong-doing.
There is an interesting psychological mechanism at work here.
While we rid ourselves of literal dirtiness, we then appear to be less capable of seeing symbolic dirtiness in others. I don't know.
Does this mean restaurant workers can't vote? Or that Dick Cheney's advisers should jettison hygiene?
Dr. Benveniste is a licensed clinical psychologist with a local practice. To e-mail him or suggest a topic, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.