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.

Videogam­ing guilt

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

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