In the 8 September Science, Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist studied what they call the Macbeth Effect:
that is, a threat to one's moral purity induces the need to cleanse oneself. This effect revealed itself through an increased mental accessibility of cleansing-related concepts, a greater desire for cleansing products, and a greater likelihood of taking antiseptic wipes.
After a quick history of religiously-motivated cleansing rituals, the pair turn their attention to The Bard:
Thus, Lady Macbeth's hope that a little bit of water would clear her of the treacherous murder of King Duncan might not have been a product of literary creativity, but of Shakespeare's acute understanding of the human psyche. If physical and moral purity are so psychologically intertwined, Lady Macbeth's desperate obsession with trying to wash away her bloodied conscience while crying, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" may not have been entirely in vain.
Contemporary psychology may have disowned Freud, but it shares his penchant for literary appropriation. Like Freud, who found in the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare a complex examination of the entry of Man into Civilization, Zhong and Liljenquist saw a student production of Macbeth and discovered bathing:
"Look at her! What is she doing with her hands?"
A round of vigorous shushings later, the pair exit the theater and park themselves in front of their favorite frozen yogurt stand.
"Do you think that Shakespeare fellow was onto something?"
"Could be. Should we do a study?"
"Sounds great! But how would we study that?"
"First, we'll determine whether a threat to moral purity increases the mental accessibility of cleansing-related words."
"Yeah! We'll ask participants to recall in detail either an ethical or unethical deed from their past and describe any feelings or emotions they experienced!"
"Then we'll have them engage in a word completion task in which they convert word fragments into meaningful words!"
"And of the six word fragments, three could be completed as cleansing-related words or as unrelated words!"
"Like W_ _ H, SH_ _ ER, and S_ _P!"
"Then we'll see whether those who recalled an unethical deed generated more cleansing-related words than those who recalled an ethical deed, suggesting that unethical behavior enhances the accessbility of cleasning-related concepts!"
Or maybe they thought the Shakespeare brand would help them find an audience.
Seriously though, I have more of a problem with the unexamined theory of the symbolic favored by contemporary psychology than its psychoanalytic equivalent. Not that depth or complexity necessarily mean anything, but the ease with which Zhong and Liljenquist place cleanliness next to turpitude disturbs me:
Physical cleansing may wash away moral sins through symbolic self-completion; that is, people are motivated to complete their self-definitions (e.g., musicians) when indicators or symbols of this definition are lacking (e.g., skills) by engaging in activities that complete the symbols (e.g., training). Thus, when moral self-definition is at stake, such as when one has indulged in morally questionable activities, one should naturally be motivated to engage in activities that will restore moral integrity.
It must be more complex than that. Why seek symbolic self-completion for an actual offense? But why address those assumptions when you can prescribe a possible remedy for all human ills:
Future studies that specifically address the psychological and behavioral consequences of physical cleanliness will provide valuable insight into regulatory mechanisms that drive ethical decisions. Given the boost to one's moral self afforded by physical cleansing, how might it influence subsequent behavior? Would adherence to a rigorous hygiene regimen facilitate ethical behavior? Or, would cleansing ironically license unethical behavior? It remains to be seen whether clean hands really do make a pure heart, but our studies indicate that they at least provide a clean conscience after moral trespasses.