Cleanliness Cues Activate Conservative Attitudes

New research finds subtle reminders of cleanliness seem to shift people to the political right.
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They may not know it, but Republicans have a secret weapon in their attempt to convince Americans of the correctness of their cause: hand sanitizers.

Such commonplace reminders of the concept of physical cleanliness can influence moral and political attitudes. That’s the conclusion of Cornell University psychologists Erik Helzer and David Pizarro, who report this effect is particularly strong in the arena of sexual morality.

Their study, just published in the journal Psychological Science, brings together three interesting threads of recent psychological research:

1. The notion that environmental cues can influence political attitudes. One recent study found people who cast ballots in a church were more likely to support an initiative endorsed by social conservatives.

2. The deep symbolic nature of hand washing. Studies have found cleaning our hands helps us emotionally disconnect from past decisions, as well as increase feelings of moral superiority.

3. The strong link between social conservatism and the concept of purity. Studies have found conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals, and that people who feel disgust tend to judge the moral transgressions of others more harshly.

Helzer and Pizarro describe two experiments. In the first, 52 students were approached as they entered the main hallway of a campus building. They were asked to complete a quick survey in which they gave some basic demographic information and described their political beliefs.

Half of the encounters took place within 10 feet of a hand sanitizing station. The participating students were instructed to “step over to the hand-sanitizer dispenser to complete the questionnaire.” For the other half, the hand sanitizer was removed; the students were asked to “step over to the wall to complete the questionnaire.”

“Participants who reported their political attitudes in the presence of the hand-sanitizer dispenser reported a less liberal political orientation than did participants in the control condition,” the researchers report. “Despite the noisy nature of the public hallway in which we collected the data, it appears as if a simple reminder of physical purity was able to shift participants’ responses toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.”

The second experiment, featuring 61 undergraduates, took place in a laboratory. Half the participants filled out that same questionnaire. They then read 12 mini-vignettes and rated their moral approval or disapproval of the characters’ behavior.

Four of the items specifically dealt with sexual purity (Example: “While house sitting for his grandmother, a man and his girlfriend have sex on his grandmother’s bed”). Others dealt with nonsexual notions of purity (“As a practical joke, a man unwraps his office mate’s lunch and places it in a sterilized bedpan”), while others weren’t about purity at all (describing breaking a promise or cheating on taxes).

For half the participants, “the experimenter stood in front of a sign on the wall (8½ by 11 inches) that read: ‘Experimenters: Help keep the lab clean by using hand wipes!’” After those students completed the questionnaire, but before they filled out the moral-values survey, the experimenters presented them with a box of antiseptic hand wipes, pointed to the sign and asked them to “keep the lab clean by wiping their hands before using the computer keyboard.”

Once again, the participants who were exposed to a cleanliness reminder expressed more conservative political leanings than those who were not. But when it came to specific ethical values, the only ones where the hand wipes led to harsher judgments were those dealing with sexual morality.

“The extreme visceral nature of sexual behavior may make it a particularly salient source of potential contamination,” Helzer and Pizarro write.

The researchers note that while activation of the mental concept of cleanliness (and its opposite, impurity) seems to pull people to the political right, it’s impossible to say whether it impacts views on specific, non-sex-related issues as immigration or taxation.

However, it’s an easy metaphorical leap between contamination of the body by germs and contamination of the body politic by undocumented aliens. A 2008 study found many instances of the "immigrant as pollutant" metaphor in media coverage of the issue.

Returning to this study, Helzer and Pizarro note that the cleanliness reminders they utilized were “quite subtle.” They found that “simply reminding participants of physical cleanliness, rather than involving them in direct physical cleansing, was sufficient for the effect to emerge.”

“These results suggest that everyday reminders of cleanliness may have unintended effects on people’s attitudes,” they add, pointing to the aforementioned hand sanitizer stations, as well as those printed admonitions found on the walls of public restrooms.

Who knew “Employees must wash hands before returning to work” had a political subtext?

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