The paradox of moral cleansing: when physical cleansing leads to increased contamination concerns

Philippe T. Gilchrist*, Simone Schnall

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Background and objectives: Moral threats, including threats to moral self-worth, have been associated with contamination concerns. Paradoxically, although self-cleansing provides temporary relief, it can worsen feelings of contamination. Self-affirmation might be an effective strategy, especially following obsessive type cognitions (e.g., responsibility beliefs) when moral threats are reactivated.

Methods: In Experiment 1, participants recalled an immoral deed and then self-cleansed (using a hand-wipe), completed a control task, or self-affirmed. Contamination concerns were subsequently measured by a washing task. In Experiment 2, the same procedure was used but obsessive-type cognitions were activated by asking participants a series of questions about obsessive beliefs.

Results: As expected, relative to the control condition, both self-affirmation and self-cleansing resulted in less subsequent repeated washing behaviour in Experiment 1. In Experiment 2, when the immoral recall was followed by activation of obsessive-type cognitions, self-cleansing led to more guilt and repeated washing than self affirmation and control. Rather than alleviating feelings of contamination, physical self-cleansing led to more contamination concerns and guilt when in the context of activated obsessive-type cognitions, possibly because it paradoxically makes (moral) cleanliness goals salient.

Limitations: Future research needs to test clinical populations, for whom contamination concerns are all the more central.

Conclusions: This research provides further evidence of the influence of moral threat in contamination concerns, and the limits of moral cleansing. Self-affirmation resulted in less contamination concerns under both a neutral condition and activated obsessive type cognitions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-44
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Mental Contamination
  • Threatened Morality
  • Self-Affirmation
  • Perspective
  • Judgment
  • Disgust
  • Sins
  • Mind


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