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Cleanliness May Foster Morality

New research reveals do-gooders can commit an immoral act to keep their morality meters balanced, so to speak. (Image credit: Stockxpert.)

A simple spritz of a fresh-smelling window cleaner made people more fair and generous in a new study.

The researchers figure cleanliness fosters morality.

They conducted fairness tests, with subjects completing tasks in a room that was either unscented or one that was sprayed with a common citrus-scented window cleaner.

One test involved a game. Study participants were given $12 of real money, which they were told came from an anonymous partner in another room. They had to decide how much of it to either keep or return to their partners who, they were told, had trusted them to divide it fairly.

Subjects in clean-smelling rooms gave back $5.33 on average. The others gave back just $2.81.

"Morality and cleanliness can go hand-in-hand," said study team member Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

A second experiment asked the subjects' interest in volunteering for a Habitat for Humanity service project. On a 7-point scale, those amid the fresh scent ranked at a 4.21 interest level, on average, while those in the normal room came in at 3.29. Rather just donate money? Sure, said 22 percent of the folks in the fresh-smelling room, compared to only 6 percent in the normal room.

Follow-up questions found the participants didn't notice the scent in the room.

"Researchers have known for years that scents play an active role in reviving positive or negative experiences," Galinsky said. "Now, our research can offer more insight into the links between people's charitable actions and their surroundings."

The study, led by Katie Liljenquist at Brigham Young University, will be detailed in the journal Psychological Science.

Liljenquist and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto had previously shown that people who have committed sins feel urged to clean themselves physically. A separate study last year at the University of Plymouth in England found that a vigorous hand wash or shower could cause a person to be less judgmental.

Liljenquist figures businesses could take something from the latest findings:

"Companies often employ heavy-handed interventions to regulate conduct, but they can be costly or oppressive," she said. "This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior."

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.