The Smell of Virtue

Transforming Aromas

Who would have thought that a clean-smelling room, infused with a barely noticeable scent of citrus, could turn us into better people? A new study at Brigham Young University shows that people who enter a clean-smelling environment do just that; they become fairer, more generous and more charitable.

In one experiment, participants received $12, allegedly sent by an anonymous partner in another room. They then had to decide how much to keep and how much to return to their partner, who trusted them to divide it fairly. People in the clean-scented room returned an average of $5.33 to their partner, versus only $2.81 by those in a normal room.

In another experiment, those in the citrus-scented clean room showed a higher interest (4.21 on a 7-point scale) in volunteering for a Habitat for Humanity service project than those in the other room (3.29). Also, 22 percent in the clean room pledged to donate money, compared to only 6 percent in the control group.

Cleanliness can help shape our actions, the researchers concluded, as well as our judgments about others and ourselves. “This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior,” observes Katie Liljenquist, the lead author on the report in Psychological Science, noting its potential usefulness in workplaces, stores and other organizations that typically rely on  traditional surveillance and security measures. Perhaps the findings could be applied at home, too, Liljenquist conjectures: “It could be that getting our kids to clean up their rooms might help them clean up their acts, too.”

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