Cleanliness is next to...virtue

You might have heard of the odour of sanctity; today’s equivalent is The Smell of Virtue -- the title of a study by some management professors into the effects of a clean-smelling environment on behaviour.

A couple of puffs of air-freshener is all it takes to lift ethical standards in the workplace, making people act in fairer and more generous ways, the research suggests. If only we had known about that before Wachovia and Lehman Brothers fell over; perhaps the whole sub-prime mortgage disaster could have been averted.

The researchers, led by Katie Liljenquist of Brigham Young University, already knew from previous studies that scents play a role in reviving positive or negative experiences, and that there is a link between morality and physical cleanliness. This time they wanted to find out if a clean environment would bring out the best in people.

They got participants to play a “trust game” involving money and then a charity game in either an unscented room or a newly-spritzed room. The results were clear: those in the clean-scented rooms were both fairer and more charitable in their behaviour -- despite the fact they were not aware of the scent and felt no change in mood. (Personally, a noticeably-scented room would have put me in a cranky and parsimonious mood.)

“Companies often employ heavy-handed interventions to regulate conduct, but they can be costly or oppressive,” said Liljenquist, whose office smells quite average. “This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior.”

Perhaps the findings could be applied at home, too, Liljenquist said with a smile. “Could be that getting our kids to clean up their rooms might help them clean up their acts, too.”

Ah, but how do you get them to clean up their rooms? Shoot some Windex under the door?


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