Separate lines of research show that individuals: (a) understand immorality metaphorically as physical contamination; (b) project undesirable self-attributes onto others; and (c) view punishment as eliminating a transgressor’s immorality. Integrating these findings, we hypothesized that individuals project guilt over their own immorality—represented as physical contamination—onto another transgressor whose punishment restores their own moral and physical purity. In Study 1, personal immorality salience decreased felt physical cleanliness unless another transgressor was punished. In Study 2, personal immorality salience led participants to see another transgressor as physically dirtier, an effect mediated by guilt. Furthermore, the punishment of the contaminated transgressor restored participants’ personal morality and eliminated restorative moral behavior. In Study 3, punishing a transgressor who served as a projection target for participants’ immorality removed felt physical contamination indirectly through decreased guilt. These studies are the first to show that another’s punishment can “cleanse” the self of “dirty” immorality feelings.
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It is also worth noting that these findings provide what is, to our knowledge, the most direct evidence to date that people can feel soiled by their own moral violations. Zhong and Liljenquist (2006) indirectly assessing participant’s felt physical contamination by measuring the accessibility of cleaning-related words (Study 1), or willingness to pay more for cleaning products (Study 2). The current study directly assessed participants’ self-reported feelings of personal physical cleanliness.
Data for 9 participants were excluded from all analyses for failing to correctly identify that the topic of the news article was a hit-and-run car accident.
In an effort to increase the internal reliability of our non-moral negative trait measure, for Study 2 we selected three negative traits that were all related to the target transgressor’s perceived competence.
This interaction remained significant when controlling for participants’ comparative rankings of their standing on morally-irrelevant positive traits (p = .03).
To ensure the validity and reliability of our findings we included a series of key attention check items following the two articles describing the transgression targets. These items required participants to identify (a) the nature of the transgressions described in the articles, (b) whether or not the transgressor described in the article was punished, and, (c) whether or not both articles described the same transgressor or different transgressors.
Submitting participants’ BJW scores to a 2 (personal immorality salience) × 2 (punishment target) ANOVA did yield a marginal two-way interaction, F(1, 280) = 3.22, p = .07, η 2p = .01. However, in contrast to the pattern of effects on guilt and personal physical dirtiness scores, significant differences in BJW scores only emerged for participants in the immorality-not-salient condition. Specifically, pairwise comparisons revealed that when immorality was not made salient, participants exposed to the punishment of the projection target reported significantly greater BJW scores (M = 3.74, SD = .93) than those exposed to the punishment of a non-projection target (M = 3.33, SD = .99). In contrast, when immorality was made salient, BJW scores did not differ between those exposed to the punishment of the projection target (M = 3.56, SD = .95) and those exposed to the punishment of the non-projection target (M = 3.56, SD = .96).
We also tested a reversed mediated moderation analysis but switching the mediator (guilt) and outcome variable (personal physical dirtiness). The 95 % confidence interval obtained for the indirect effects of immorality salience × punishment target interaction on guilt through perceived personal dirtiness scores through guilt did not contain zero (−.20, −.02).
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Rothschild, Z.K., Landau, M.J., Keefer, L.A. et al. Another’s punishment cleanses the self: Evidence for a moral cleansing function of punishing transgressors. Motiv Emot 39, 722–741 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-015-9487-9
- Conceptual metaphor
- Defensive projection