Cleaning Makes You Nicer

A new study finds that people in a "clean-smelling room" were fairer and more likely to share than those in unscented rooms.

November 2, 2009

Good news: Cleanliness is next to niceness.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A clean room is not only hygienic, it may nudge people towards better behavior. A new study published this month in the medical journal Psychological Science revealed that people in a clean-smelling room were more likely to share money or express interest in volunteering than people in an unscented room.


THE DETAILS: Researchers under the direction of lead author Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, asked participants to perform several tasks; half the participants were in unscented rooms and the other half were in rooms freshly spritzed with citrus-scented Windex. (In a follow-up questionnaire, none of the participants said they’d noticed the scent in the room.) The first experiment evaluated fairness. All participants received $12, which they were told was sent to them by an anonymous partner in another room; they had to decide how much of it to keep and how much to return to their partners who had trusted them to divide it evenly. People in clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit their partners, returning an average of $5.33 to their partners, compared with the paltry $2.81 given back by those in the unscented room.

The second experiment evaluated charitable behavior. Participants were asked to volunteer for a Habitat for Humanity service project and donate funds to the cause. Those in the clean-smelling room were significantly more interested in volunteering, and 22 percent said they’d like to donate money. Just 6 percent of the participants in the unscented room indicated any interest in donating.

WHAT IT MEANS: People unconsciously behave more ethically in clean-smelling rooms. What the study doesn’t mean: You have to clean with Windex to produce the same results. In fact, there are natural cleaners that will give your home a fresh, character-building smell without exposing you to toxic chemicals.

The effect of cleanliness on behavior comes to no surprise to green guru Annie Bond, author of the book Home Enlightenment (Rodale 2005) and editor-in-chief of the green living website"People come into my home after it’s been cleaned and say, 'Oh, it smells so good in here!'" she notes. And, if anything, she expects natural cleaning materials to produce an even better effect. "In my case, I think they’re responding to the fact that my home was cleaned with natural materials, and on some level—perhaps on an unconscious level, similar to how the smell affected the participants in the study—they know and appreciate that," she says. Natural, nontoxic scents are subtle—like linseed oil soap or lemon juice—but very affecting."

Here’s how to clean green—and save your physical health even as you build your character:

• Read labels. "One easy parameter for finding nontoxic cleaners is to look at 'signal words' such as 'flammable' or 'caution' on product labels, and only buy products that have nothing stronger than a caution," says Bond. Remove any products from your home that have stronger warnings, such as flammable or danger. "Do you really want you or anyone you love to be breathing in anything that’s flammable?" asks Bond.

• Ditch the drugstore in favor of the health-food store. They carry cleaning products, too, and you'll probably have more choices. "The competition in this arena has been so strong over the years that the products that remain tend to be healthy and green—and effective," says Bond.

• Mix a better Windex. Bond says it's simple: Just add ¼ cup of vinegar, 1 cup of water, and a dab of green dishwashing liquid to a spray bottle, shake to blend, and clean windows and countertops as you normally would. It smells great. Says Bond: "The shelf life is indefinite."

• Make your own soft scrub. Love the smell of Lysol in the morning? Instead, try Bond’s all-natural version—perfect for porcelain, tile, and stainless steel, as well as your psyche: Pour ½ cup baking soda into a bowl, and add a few squirts of a green liquid soap (like Dr. Bronner's) or detergent (such as Seventh Generation dish detergent or Ecover's All-Purpose Cleaner) until the texture is similar to frosting. Scoop some of the mixture onto a sponge, and scrub. Rinse well.

Tags: Rodale News