Media Releases

A cultural look at moral purity: wiping the face clean

January 12, 2016

Toron­to, ON — Moral peo­ple have a pure heart. Immoral acts feel dirty. Expres­sions that describe moral­i­ty in terms of puri­ty abound in Eng­lish and numer­ous oth­er lan­guages. The idea is root­ed in reli­gions around the world as well. For exam­ple, rit­u­al purifi­ca­tion of the phys­i­cal body sym­bol­izes moral purifi­ca­tion, from bap­tism of Chris­tian­i­ty and mik­vah of Judaism, to ablu­tion of Islam and Bud­dhism, to bathing in the Ganges of Hin­duism and amrit of Sikhism. Across human soci­eties, bod­i­ly puri­ty seems deeply inter­twined with moral­i­ty. Does it imply that the moral­i­ty-puri­ty link is a uni­ver­sal psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non?

The answer turns out to be Yes and No—it depends on what exact­ly we want uni­ver­sal to mean, accord­ing to a new study by Prof. Spike W. S. Lee of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment and col­leagues Jin Wan of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Gronin­gen, Hong­hong Tang and Chao Liu of Bei­jing Nor­mal Uni­ver­si­ty and Xiao­qin Mai of Ren­min Uni­ver­si­ty of Chi­na.

“If by uni­ver­sal we mean, ‘Does the gen­er­al link between moral­i­ty and puri­ty exist across cul­tures?’, then yes, it appears to. But if by uni­ver­sal we mean, ‘Does the link man­i­fest itself in iden­ti­cal ways across cul­tures?’, then no, it doesn’t,” says Prof. Lee.

Con­sid­er East Asians. Cul­tur­al psy­chol­o­gists have long observed that East Asians care a lot about their “face,” or the pub­lic image of one’s self. It is evi­dent in their ten­den­cy to avoid “los­ing face,” which hap­pens when they are seen act­ing self­ish­ly, dis­loy­al­ly, or inap­pro­pri­ate­ly, and in their keen­ness to “gain face” by mov­ing up the social hier­ar­chy so that oth­ers “give face” to them. Psy­chol­o­gists call them a “face” cul­ture.

Giv­en East Asians’ spe­cial empha­sis on the face as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of pub­lic self-image, Prof. Lee and his col­leagues hypoth­e­sized that facial purifi­ca­tion might have par­tic­u­lar­ly pow­er­ful moral effects among mem­bers of a face cul­ture. They con­duct­ed sev­er­al exper­i­ments to find out.

In one exper­i­ment, after peo­ple recall their immoral behav­ior, where­as hands-clean­ing effec­tive­ly reduces guilt and regret against a West­ern back­drop, face-clean­ing is more effec­tive against an East Asian back­drop. Face-clean­ing frees East Asians from the urge to engage in guilt-dri­ven com­pen­sato­ry proso­cial behav­ior. In the wake of their immoral­i­ty, East Asians find a face-clean­ing prod­uct espe­cial­ly appeal­ing and spon­ta­neous­ly choose to wipe their face clean.

These results sug­gest that moral puri­ty is both uni­ver­sal and cul­tur­al­ly vari­able. Its exis­tence is found East and West. But the spe­cif­ic form of purifi­ca­tion may dif­fer from one cul­ture to anoth­er. Whether peo­ple should wipe their hands or face clean—or rinse their mouth, or sham­poo their hair, or wash their feet—is like­ly to depend on the cul­tur­al mean­ings attached to each body part.

The paper was pub­lished in a recent issue of Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­o­gy

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Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
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