OUT, DAMNED SPOT! THE MACBETH EFFECT
THE MACBETH EFFECT IS ALIVE AND WELL
A soak in the bath can wash away all manner of stresses. But a guilty conscience? Mind Guru Kim Lacey reports on how – subconsciously – regret makes us compelled to wash – remarkably, even after just playing video games.
We went through childhood with the words ‘ Wash your hands!’ ringing in our ears before every mealtime. But why would a grown adult find themselves reaching for cleansing products after playing a video game? It’s called the ‘MacBeth Effect’. Mind Guru Kim Lacey finds out more... Alright, get ready to have your mind stretched. (I am the ‘Mind Guru’ after all!) Dig into your memories of Shakespeare, recall the play MacBeth, and imagine yourself as Lady MacBeth for a minute. (Never seen it? Watch a fun condensed animated version here.) I want you to focus on that famous scene in which the guilt-ridden Queen Consort obsessively washes her hands, trying to rid them of imagined blood. She was hoping to rid herself of mental anguish – but how could hand-washing help her? Surprising though it may seem, morally objectionable actions can be ‘washed away’: in a 2006 article published in Science, ChenBo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist proved it. If you think about it, moral cleansing is pretty common. Religions, for example, often couple physical and mental cleansing in regular rituals (think baptism). But Zhong and Liljenquist set out to prove a tangible connection between these two types of cleansing. As a result, they coined term ‘The MacBeth Effect’. To test their theory, they asked participants to think of something ethical or unethical they had previously taken part in, while also bringing to mind any emotions they felt. Switching gears, the researchers then had the volunteers complete six fill-in-the-blank prompts. (There’s a small one on page 27 for you to try out.) Of these six prompts, some could be completed to form cleansing-related words. What they found was fascinating: participants who thought of an unethical action were more likely to complete the blanks with cleaning terms. Those who originally imagined an ethical action usually filled in the blank with other random words that sounded right to them. But it gets more interesting. They also tried a similar experiment using an assortment of cleaning products and other everyday items instead of fill-in-the-blank prompts. This time, Zhong and Liljenquist asked participants to handwrite a given story – of which some were ethical and others were not. After the writing session, the participants were asked to select an item from an assortment given to them. Those that copied the unethical stories chose cleaning products (like toothpaste or antibacterial wipes) instead of random objects (like candy bars or Post-It notes). Zhong and Liljenquist concluded that seeking physical cleansing does actually ease the mind’s worry over moral infractions.
Shift your focus just a bit and think about how playing videogames might alleviate the stress after a trying day. It’s a common reason to pick up the joypad: the US Army has enlisted the use of videogame consoles to help soldiers become desensitized to violence – or to simply let them blow off steam. But why does playing a violent game – one in which you would ‘kill’ someone – actually make you feel better? A recent study by Mario Gallwitzer and André Melzer, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, took ‘The MacBeth Effect’ one step further to find out the answer. Here’s the scenario: you’re trying to unwind after a tough day. Instead of kicking back with a book (which is my favorite!), you decide to relax by playing a first-person shooter (FPS), the type of video game that takes place from your perspective so it appears like you’re the one performing the action. So there you are, ready to strike from behind a digital bush, and BOOM! You successfully vaporise your target— another human character. OK, stop right there. How do you feel? Energised? Morally conflicted? Not affected? Though you may not realize it, your response to that question has something to do with the amount of time you spend gaming. Frequent gamers would be more likely to say ‘not affected’, while infrequent gamers (like myself) would likely choose ‘morally conflicted’. Gallwitzer and Melzer’s study drew on research that showed how gamers who played on a regular basis were more likely to automatically distance themselves from the characters and actions in the game than those who didn’t play video games often. They predicted that
infrequent gamers were more likely to use hygiene products after playing because of the ‘moral distress’ they endured. And they were right. For someone like myself, who’s not much of a gamer, Gallwitzer and Melzer’s study represents a key finding. Just as with the original ‘The MacBeth Effect’ experiment, they show that those who experience moral distress virtually (from a video game) are more likely to select cleaning products when given a choice. By contrast, regular gamers don’t feel any moral distress, so don’t feel the need to reach for the cleansing products. (Does this mean gamers smell
worse? - Ed) Glancing round my house, I know it’s time for a good spring clean. I’ve not done anything immoral lately, so I’m pretty confident it’s the actual dirt that is prompting me to reach for the vacuum cleaner. That said, next time I’m out shopping I may just psychoanalyse the products in someone else’s cart. And see if they look guilty…
Gollwitzer, M. and A. Melzer. (2012). Macbeth and the joystick: Evidence for moral cleansing after playing a violent video game. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48: 1356–1360 Zhong, C. and K. Liljenquist. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313: 1451-1452