The stench of corruption

Written By: - Date published: 10:02 am, November 22nd, 2009 - 5 comments
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No, I haven’t abandoned my resolution to be less political on Sundays quite so soon. This post is about smells. Specifically, the effect of certain smells on behaviour. How’s this for fascinating:

Clean Smells Promote Moral Behavior, Study Suggests

People are unconsciously fairer and more generous when they are in clean-smelling environments, according to a soon-to-be published study led by a Brigham Young University professor. The research found a dramatic improvement in ethical behavior with just a few spritzes of citrus-scented Windex.

The first experiment evaluated fairness. As a test of whether clean scents would enhance reciprocity, participants played a classic “trust game.” Subjects received $12 of real money (allegedly sent by an anonymous partner in another room). They had to decide how much of it to either keep or return to their partners who had trusted them to divide it fairly. Subjects in clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, returning a significantly higher share of the money. …

The second experiment evaluated whether clean scents would encourage charitable behavior. Subjects indicated their interest in volunteering with a campus organization for a Habitat for Humanity service project and their interest in donating funds to the cause. Participants surveyed in a Windex-ed room were significantly more interested in volunteering

Smell is often described as the most “primitive” sense, in that it stimulates the oldest (in evolutionary terms) parts of the brain – sometimes called the limbic brain, or “reptilian brain”. Smells have long been known to be very powerful in terms of evoking memory or emotion. But this is the first time (as far as I know) that smells have been linked to something as abstract as moral decision making. Ever since Freud popularised the idea of the “subconscious” we have understood that we’re not necessarily aware of all the motivations for and influences on our behaviour. This study suggests that smells are one of the important factors.

So then, perhaps we can now add “the aroma of morality” to the political lexicon to balance “the stench of corruption”. Both may turn out to have very literal meanings indeed! In the meantime, I’m off to sort out parliament. Not to wipe it out with barrels of gunpowder, but to wipe it over with buckets of Lemon Pledge.

5 comments on “The stench of corruption”

  1. felix 1

    Fascinating, r0b.

    And I’m off to do the housework. Got to go to the tip later though…

  2. RedLogix 2

    So cleanliness is next to Godliness after all.

  3. Noko 3

    I recommend you read this Slashdot post before putting too much credence in that idea:
    http://science.slashdot.org/story/09/10/26/1834248/Clean-Smells-Promote-Ethical-Behavior
    In particular, this post:
    http://science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1419003&cid=29880221

  4. George D 4

    Their research subjects are likely to be from a WEIRD sample – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Their own subconscious associations may be different from those who live in a smelly dirty country.

    Just saying, treat all research that claims to have universal implications with care and scrutiny.

  5. prism 5

    Would there be any correlation between countries with emphasis on nice smells and cleanliness and their honesty? Would it agree with Transparency International’s least corrupt country index. NZs consider themselves high on this, lemon would be quite a popular smell – but lemon Pledge would give too smooth a finish and make politicians even more slippery.

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