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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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories