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

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt