“Embodiment Effects in Moral Cleansing” by TaeWoo Kim, Adam Duhachek, Pablo Briñol, Spike Lee and Richard Petty
Immoral behavior elicits negative emotions and activates the goal of downregulating negative emotions. Prior research has shown that cleansing the body (e.g., washing hands) helps people attain this goal, owing to the metaphorical association between cleanliness and morality (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lee & Schwarz, 2011; Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006). We challenge this assumption and propose that the effect of physical cleansing on reducing guilt depends on the meanings associated with the cleansing action. Furthermore, we propose that the emotion-reducing effect of cleansing is stronger when the guilt is elicited by conducting an unethical action (vs. inaction guilt) because the former is more associated with metaphorical associations with contamination and cleansing (e.g., “putting blood on one’s hands”). In Study 1, we showed that, when consumers applied gel to their hands, they were more likely to experience a greater reduction of induced guilt when the gel was framed as “hand sanitizing”—as opposed to having a different meaning, unrelated to cleansing (e.g., handgrip enhancement). Study 2 further demonstrated that this effect emerges only when an actual physical action was present, thus excluding an alternative explanation of semantic priming. In Study 3, it was shown that the effect of physical cleansing on the reduction of guilt emerged when the guilt was caused by an action (i.e., conducting an unethical action) but not when the guilt was caused by inaction (i.e., omitting an ethical action). The current research shows that embodiment effect is driven not by the cleansing action itself, but by the meaning ascribed to the action by consumers.