Washing our hands and bodies may not be just attempts to keep off bacteria, but also tentatives to scrub away psychological "dirt" associated with guiltA team of researchers from the University of Toronto, Canada and Northwestern University, Chicago state that when an individual washes his hands and body does not intend to just keep himself physically clean and keep bacteria at distance, he also unconsciously wants to wash his sins away. "Showering and handwashing occur daily, but now we find these core routines can really have a psychological impact," stated Katie Liljenquist, a behavioral researcher at the Northwestern University in Chicago for LiveScience.com.
Researchers involved in the study termed this human attempt to purify both our bodies and souls as the "Macbeth effect", obviously inspired by the dramatic scene in the famous Shakespeare play. Lady Macbeth, the notorious murderess, tries to wash her sins away and to purify her consciousness by actually scrubbing away the imaginary bloodstains on her hands. After the awful murder of King Duncan, Lady Macbeth goes back into her bed, but has a restless sleep. Unconsciously, she gets off her bed and while dream-walking she tries to remove the imaginary blood on her hands and cries: "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"
The "Macbeth effect" can also be met in many individuals who feel guilty about much more insignificant deeds such as lying or betraying the loved one or a close friend, stealing, failing to meet someone's expectations etc. All these people try to wash their psychological guilt by washing their hands and bodies. They unconsciously connect their soul with their bodies and aim at purifying their mind by purifying their physique.
"After we feel morally threatened, we have this deep psychological urge to cleanse ourselves," says leader of the study Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto. "We found that after engaging in unethical behaviors such as lying or cheating, which leads you to question your moral self-perception, whether you're a good person, whether you're a moral person after all, this induces an urge to engage in physical cleansing. You want to wash your hands. You feel that literally that you're dirty," he added.
In the study, researchers asked participants to focus either on ethical or unethical deeds from their past and then to get involved in various activities. The team found that most people who picked out recollections about unethical or immoral deeds went for activities involving washing and cleaning and filled in the gaps S_ _ P and W _ _ H with "soap" and "wash". Also, 74% of those who remembered unethical deeds from the past chose an antiseptic wipe over a pencil and other objects.