Inspired living

Clean and ethical

Cleaning window

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There are no linguistic accidents. People are described as a “pain in the neck” because the anxiety they induce can cause contraction in neck muscles that cause pain. A newly opened play that doesn’t do well “bombs” because the fallout for cast and crew can be devastating. We choose our words carefully even if we don’t think about them. Have you ever, for instance, thought why we say someone who doesn’t cheat is a clean player? The reason for this linguistic choice has been highlighted in a new study.

The study was based on the premise of wanting to see how the emotion of disgust would impact behaviour. To do this they conducted three experiments.

Dirty streets or unkept workspaces might be generating lying and cheating, or self-centred, behaviour without anyone being aware.

In one experiment the subjects evaluated consumer products like anti-diarrhoea medicine, nappies, feminine hygiene pads, cat litter, and adult incontinence products. In another experiment they had subjects write essays about their most disgusting memory and in a third experiment they watched a toilet scene from the movie Trainspotting. All of these tasks were intended to evoke disgust.

Once disgust had been generated the subjects were then asked to take part in further experiments that were designed to measure how willing they were to lie and cheat for financial gain. It emerged that people who experienced disgust consistently engaged in self-interested, dishonest behaviours at a higher rate than those who did not.

According to the researchers disgust provokes an instinct to protect yourself and so you withdraw from whatever has provoked the disgust. When you are in that mode you are more likely to think about yourself and less inclined to think about other people, so you are more likely to cheat in order to gain a small advantage.

Going a step further however, the researchers wanted to see if they could modify behaviour arising from feeling disgust.

To do this they again induced disgust in people but then asked them to evaluate cleansing products like body washes, disinfectants, household cleaners, and other cleansing products. They found that people exposed to “clean” thoughts were no more likely to lie and cheat than a control group.

The implications of this for workplaces and society at large could be huge. Interestingly, the researchers found that people can feel disgusted without being aware of it. So dirty streets or unkept workspaces might be generating lying and cheating, or self-centred, behaviour without anyone being aware. It looks as though we would all benefit from cleaning up our act.


Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.