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The paradox of moral cleansing: When physical cleansing leads to increased contamination concerns.

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Gilchrist, Philippe T 


BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: Moral threats, including threats to moral self-worth, have been associated with contamination concerns. Paradoxically, although self-cleansing provides temporary relief, it can worsen feelings of contamination. Self-affirmation might be an effective strategy, especially following obsessive type cognitions (e.g., responsibility beliefs) when moral threats are reactivated. METHODS: In Experiment 1, participants recalled an immoral deed and then self-cleansed (using a hand-wipe), completed a control task, or self-affirmed. Contamination concerns were subsequently measured by a washing task. In Experiment 2, the same procedure was used but obsessive-type cognitions were activated by asking participants a series of questions about obsessive beliefs. RESULTS: As expected, relative to the control condition, both self-affirmation and self-cleansing resulted in less subsequent repeated washing behaviour in Experiment 1. In Experiment 2, when the immoral recall was followed by activation of obsessive-type cognitions, self-cleansing led to more guilt and repeated washing than self-affirmation and control. Rather than alleviating feelings of contamination, physical self-cleansing led to more contamination concerns and guilt when in the context of activated obsessive-type cognitions, possibly because it paradoxically makes (moral) cleanliness goals salient. LIMITATIONS: Future research needs to test clinical populations, for whom contamination concerns are all the more central. CONCLUSIONS: This research provides further evidence of the influence of moral threat in contamination concerns, and the limits of moral cleansing. Self-affirmation resulted in less contamination concerns under both a neutral condition and activated obsessive type cognitions.



Adolescent, Adult, Female, Guilt, Humans, Hygiene, Infections, Male, Middle Aged, Morals, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Self Concept, Young Adult

Journal Title

J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry

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Elsevier BV