Trying to start afresh this year? Have a bath. No, really

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

When actors do that scene in which Lady Macbeth washes imaginary blood from her hands (“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” etc), most play it slightly mad. I’d prefer them to play it deadpan, partly because it would be funny, and partly because recent research suggests that Lady Macbeth was actually performing a fairly sound bit of self-therapy.

A slew of studies by Spike W S Lee and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan looked into the power of washing as a psychological act and found something significant. Cleansing helps us get over our dark deeds: the metaphor holds.

In one study, participants had to remember a time where they had acted immorally. Those who cleaned their hands afterwards were able to get rid of the guilt. Being asked to imagine being “clean” rather than “dirty” also gave them a feeling of moral superiority; they made stricter judgements about others and felt better about themselves. With the right sanitiser, what is done evidently can be undone.

We instinctively seek this psychological comfort, too. In one experiment, subjects were asked to tell a lie by either email or voicemail. Afterwards, when given the choice, those who had lied over the phone wanted mouthwash, while those who had lied in writing were more likely to take the hand sanitiser.

Evidence suggests that we also apply the cleaning principle to others’ doings. One study found that copying out a story about someone else’s immoral behaviour increased people’s desire for cleaning products – and these were products that cleanse the outside world, such as detergent and disinfectant.

The metaphor is surprisingly strong. The researchers point out that we use the same facial expressions of disgust when we come across moral wrongdoing and contaminants – from open wounds to rotten food. The two also consistently overlap in language use.

Why might this be? Any conceptual associations will be grounded in brain structure. The brain usually builds certain functions on top of existing ones to save space – physical disgust towards bad food is likely to be an earlier adaptation (avoiding unhealthy objects and environments) and disgust towards evil doings a later one, which happens to piggyback on the same neural pathways.

Abstract reasoning (about concepts such as morality) is also often linked to direct sensory experience (seeing maggots emerging from a loaf of bread, for example), which is why images in dreams can often tell you something about your mental state.

Clean break

Washing also seems to get rid of doubts and worries outside the moral sphere. Recently cleaned people who had just made a decision (in one case, between two types of jam) needed to spend less time justifying their choice to feel all right about it. Gamblers who had just had a run of bad luck were back making risky bets again after a quick wash. It seems the trick works, whatever feeling you are trying to dispose of. 

So, if you’re looking to start the new year afresh – have a bath. It’ll make you feel better and God knows it may make those around you feel better, too.

"Bathtub acrobat" David O'Mer during a performance. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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“Brexit is based on racism”: Who is protesting outside the Supreme Court and what are they fighting for?

Movement for Justice is challenging the racist potential of Brexit, as the government appeals the High Court's Article 50 decision.

Protestors from the campaign group Movement for Justice are demonstrating outside the Supreme Court for the second day running. They are against the government triggering Article 50 without asking MPs, and are protesting against the Brexit vote in general. They plan to remain outside the Supreme Court for the duration of the case, as the government appeals the recent High Court ruling in favour of Parliament.

Their banners call to "STOP the scapgoating of immigrants", to "Build the movement against austerity & FOR equality", and to "Stop Brexit Fight Racism".

The group led Saturday’s march at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, where a crowd of over 2,000 people stood against the government’s immigration policy, and the management of the centre, which has long been under fire for claims of abuse against detainees.  

Movement for Justice, and its 50 campaigners, were in the company yesterday of people from all walks of pro and anti-Brexit life, including the hangers-on from former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s postponed march on the Supreme Court.

Antonia Bright, one of the campaign’s lead figures, says: “It is in the interests of our fight for freedom of movement that the Supreme Court blocks May’s attempt to rush through an anti-immigrant deal.”

This sentiment is echoed by campaigners on both sides of the referendum, many of whom believe that Parliament should be involved.

Alongside refuting the royal prerogative, the group criticises the Brexit vote in general. Bright says:

“The bottom line is that Brexit represents an anti-immigrant movement. It is based on racism, so regardless of how people intended their vote, it will still be a decision that is an attack on immigration.”

A crucial concern for the group is that the terms of the agreement will set a precedent for anti-immigrant policies that will heighten aggression against ethnic communities.

This concern isn’t entirely unfounded. The National Police Chief’s Council recorded a 58 per cent spike in hate crimes in the week following the referendum. Over the course of the month, this averaged as a 41 per cent increase, compared with the same time the following year.

The subtext of Bright's statement is not only a dissatisfaction with the result of the EU referendum, but the process of the vote itself. It voices a concern heard many times since the vote that a referendum is far too simple a process for a desicion of such momentous consequences. She also draws on the gaping hole between people's voting intentions and the policy that is implemented.

This is particularly troubling when the competitive nature of multilateral bargaining allows the government to keep its cards close to its chest on critical issues such as freedom of movement and trade agreements. Bright insists that this, “is not a democratic process at all”.

“We want to positively say that there does need to be scrutiny and transparency, and an opening up of this question, not just a rushing through on the royal prerogative,” she adds. “There needs to be transparency in everything that is being negotiated and discussed in the public realm.”

For campaigners, the use of royal prerogative is a sinister symbol of the government deciding whatever it likes, without consulting Parliament or voters, during the future Brexit negotiations. A ruling in the Supreme Court in favour of a parliamentary vote would present a small but important reassurance against these fears.