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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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times