Sin: Is Absolution Just a Hand Wash Away?

Can we wash away our sins by washing our hands?

Posted Mar 21, 2011

Lent is a time when many people consider their sinful behaviors and attempt to resist giving in to their greatest temptations, at least for a few weeks. But is there an easier way to alleviate our lives of sin? Recent research suggests there is, and all it will cost you is the price of an antibacterial wipe or a bar of soap.

The idea that sins can be "washed" away is not a new one. A number of religions have ceremonies where water is used to cleanse the body and soul. For instance, Christians and Sikhs use Baptism ceremonies to purify the soul and Muslims engage in wudu, the act of washing body parts in clean water, to prepare for worship. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Pontius Pilate is described as washing his hands after condemning Jesus to death. Even Shakespeare recognized this link by having Macbeth wash her hands as a way of clearing her guilty conscience after contributing to a murder.

But recent research shows this idiom of "washing away sins" extends beyond ceremonies and stories. These studies suggest a reciprocal relationship between physical and ethical cleanliness. First, feelings of morality and guilt can impact perceptions of our physical condition (i.e., feeling dirty). Second, physical acts such as washing our hands can directly impact our moral behaviors.

Immoral Acts Make us Feel Dirty
Dr. Chen-Bo Zhong and Liljenquist have conducted a number of studies investigating the link between cleanliness of the body and cleanliness of the soul. For instance, in one study, people were asked to reflect on an ethical or unethical deed that they had committed in the past. Next, they completed a word fragment task where they had to fill in missing letters to complete a word, such as S_ _ P. Participants who reflected on an immoral act were more likely to create a word related to cleansing (SOAP), compared to those who reflected on a moral act (STEP).

In another study, these researchers examined whether this effect produced an urge to cleanse one's body after a moral transgression. Participants hand-copied a short story, written in the first person, that described an ethical or unethical act against a coworker. Next, participants were presented with a number of commercial products and were asked to rate how desirable each item was. Some of the items were cleansing products (e.g, Dove soap, Lysol disinfectant) and some were neutral products (e.g., Post-It Notes, Energizer batteries). Participants who copied the immoral story rated the cleansing products as more desirable than those who copied the moral story, but there was no difference in ratings of the non-cleansing products.

Cleanliness Makes us Feel Closer to Godliness
If immoral acts make us feel dirty, is it possible that cleansing will rid us of or moral guilt? To test this possibility, these researchers relied on the idea that guilt from a prior transgression would drive people to restore their moral purity through compensatory acts (e.g., volunteering). However, if a physical cleansing somehow "washed away" this guilt, then people given the opportunity to wash should be less likely to engage in compensatory acts.

In this study, all participants were asked to reflect on an unethical deed that they had committed in the past. Half of the participants were then given an antiseptic wipe and instructed to wash their hands while the other half did not cleanse themselves. Finally, all participants were asked if they would volunteer to be in another study (without pay) to help out a desperate graduate student. As expected, those who washed their hands were less likely to volunteer. Results showed that 74% of people volunteered in the non-cleansing condition, compared to just 41% in the cleansing condition. This means that the simple act of washing their hands cut participants' volunteerism in half!

Taken together, these studies suggest that thoughts about prior immoral acts, even acts that we didn't commit ourselves, make us feel dirty and therefore activate a desire for physical cleanliness. And when given an opportunity to physical cleanse ourselves, we truly do feel absolved of our sins. Physical cleansing may not cause us to act morally, but these studies suggest that it does make people feel like they have a clean conscience.

Suggested Readings:
Zhong, C. B., & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing. Science, 313, 1451-1452