A recent study conducted in Britain revealed that people who feel physically clean cut others more moral slack. The study involved two experiments conducted on a small number of university students. In one experiment a group played a word unscrambling game before being asked to rate – anywhere between "perfectly okay" to "completely wrong" – a variety of moral lapses. Those students whose prearranged word lists included terms such as "pure," "washed" or "pristine," judged the moral transgressions less harshly than their counterparts whose lists contained only neutral words.
In the second experiment, students were asked to watch a movie scene depicting despicable acts. Half the group washed their hands, and all were then requested to give their opinion on what they had seen. Those who washed their hands gave more benign evaluations than the others.
Researchers are now further examining the implications of this study on juror decisions, voters' temperaments, and the effect that personal cleanliness has on many other decision makers of impact.
It is widely accepted that our decisions and reactions are influenced by many factors besides our conscious, "rational" thought-process. A major determinant in how we relate to others is our feelings of self-worth. If we are displeased with our own condition, we project these feelings upon others. I believe we can all relate to the idea that when we are feeling lousy – whether because we failed to meet a work deadline, got a speeding ticket, got into a row with a spouse, or any of another million reasons – we treat others curtly (at best) and certainly find it difficult to muster the necessary emotional strength to deal patiently with real or perceived affronts. The whole world is suddenly viewed in shades of black.
But this study suggests that even a seemingly minor act such as washing hands – or even teasing the mind with cleanliness-related words – can have a significant impact on the way we judge and treat others.
Here are my thoughts. If we want to make the world into a friendlier and gentler place, we should launch a Do a Mitzvah a Day Campaign. Undoubtedly, feeling spiritually fulfilled provides a much stronger sense of self-worth than what anything physical can provide.
If washing hands makes us feel better about ourselves and less judgmental, how much more so the wonderful feeling that accompanies giving charity to a worthy cause? Or taking a few moments to connect with G‑d in prayer? Or practicing self-restraint and taking the effort to go to the kosher eatery? Or how about ________ (you fill in the blank)?
And in case we thought that a particular mitzvah is too "small" to make a real difference in our day, now we have a study that suggests otherwise...
Okay, I'll agree that starting global campaigns is an ambitious undertaking. Let's start with you and me.
Do it for your spouse, your kids, your friends...