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Cleaning Your House Could Make You a More Moral Person

Go wild with the Windex


In Chuck Palahniuk’s cult classic, Fight Club, the narrator observes, “The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue.” Experts estimate that a billion people turned the pages of IKEA’s 2013 catalogue—the consummate pornography of domestic order. In a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Delphine Dion (Sorbonne Business School), Ouidade Sabri (Paris-Est University), and Valerie Guillard (University of Paris Dauphine) set out to understand why we’re so finicky about our personal space. 

IKEA (or The Container Store or Real Simple) may have elevated organization to an art form. But modern fantasies of tidiness reach back into the nineteenth century, and the idea that messiness presents some kind of danger. A neat home yielded social recognition—and a messy home, disapprobation. (Of course, mothers and wives stood at the center of this order, guardians of the domestic sanctuary.) Today, we have a dizzying array of brands, products, services, and ads that insist mess is dangerous (e.g., “Hoarders: Buried Alive”). Drawing on Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, the foremost contribution to the anthropological understanding of pollution, researchers argue that untidiness has to do with the violation of designated classifications that help us organize the world into intelligible parcels and systems. 

They tested this theory by asking 25 participants to photograph organized and disorganized areas in their homes (ranging from urban apartments to suburban and countryside homes). Then, they questioned the participants about the photos in order to understand individual logics of tidiness. For many participants, order was all about the maintenance of borders. Vegetables on the vegetable rack and cheeses in the cheese drawer. But with other participants, the desire for order stemmed from a fear of being perceived as disorganized. One woman cited her shame when she discovered that her sister-in-law had tidied up her kitchen cupboards. Implicit in this seemingly helpful gesture was the judgment of her in-laws—the perception that she couldn’t run an organized home. Most people define the opposite of order—mess—as a contradiction of the classification system. Tidiness, the researchers concluded, reinforces the structure of social reality and the moral order. 

Research has also affirmed that we still draw a strong, if unconscious and irrational, connection between cleanliness and morality. In a 2006 study published in Science, business professors Katie Liljenquist (Brigham Young University) and Chen-Bo Zhong (University of Toronto) explored the “Macbeth Effect”—the theory that threats to one’s moral purity induce the desire for physical cleanliness. In their study, participants revealed this desire through an increased petition for cleaning products, a tendency to use cleansing-related concepts, and a greater likelihood of taking antiseptic wipes. Physical cleansing, they concluded, alleviates the upsetting consequences of unethical behavior and reduces threats to one’s moral self-image. 

But if we can wash away our sins, can cleanliness also increase our virtue? Lilienquist and Zhong followed up their findings with another study testing whether people are unconsciously fairer and more generous when they’re in clean-smelling environments. Participants, each given $12, were divided into unscented rooms and rooms freshly spritzed with Windex. They had to decide how much of the money to share with partners who trusted them to divide it fairly. Participants in the clean-scented room were much less likely to exploit their partners’ trust: They returned a significantly higher share of the $12 than participants in the unscented room. Researchers also found that participants in the Windex-ed room were also more interested in volunteering for and donating to charitable causes. Their conclusion? Cleanliness encourages virtuous behavior. 

Image via Shutterstock.