Clean Hands = Clean Conscience for People with OCD

Cleaning one’s hands is associated with an alleviation of anxiety from moral misconduct. But this effect is even more pronounced in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), according to new research published in Clinical Psychological Science.

Orna Reuven, Nira Liberman, and Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University suspected that, because people with OCD are sometimes debilitated by obsessions about moral transgressions and cleanliness, the link between physical cleanliness and ethical purity might be even stronger for them.

To generate feelings of moral discomfort, the researchers had participants write about some unethical act they had committed and any emotions they experienced in relation to the unethical act.

After the writing exercise, some of the participants were told to clean their hands.

The researchers then asked all of the participants if they would volunteer for a second study to help a desperate graduate student, based on the assumption that people experiencing moral discomfort would be more likely to help others to ease their conscience.

In line with previous studies, the participants who had cleaned their hands were less willing to help the graduate student than those who had not, suggesting that physical cleanliness is associated with relief of moral discomfort.

But this effect was especially pronounced in the patients with OCD: Those who had cleaned their hands were much less likely to help the struggling graduate student.

At the same time, almost all the participants with OCD who didn’t clean their hands jumped at the opportunity to volunteer for the second study.

The researchers suggest that people with OCD might view morality as a metaphor for cleanliness, and therefore might view cleanliness as an embodied, concrete representation of ethical purity.

Reuven, O., Liberman, N., & Dar, R. (2013). The Effect of Physical Cleaning on Threatened Morality in Individuals With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Clinical Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/2167702613485565

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