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Clean Scents Make People More Virtuous, Study Shows

Posted: November 3, 2009

A new study from Brigham Young University shows clean smells can encourage good behavior in people, and smell is often a key component of the spa environment.

We’ve all heard the adage about cleanliness being next to godliness, but a forthcoming study in the journal Psychological Science may have empirically proved it. According to researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, a few spritzes of citrus-scented household cleaner can actually make us more virtuous.

“We wondered if you could regulate moral behavior through cleanliness and decided to look at olfaction and clean scents,” says Katie Liljenquist, lead author of the study, titled "The Smell of Virtue." “And at some level, it does seem to elevate people’s core choices. These clean scents activate moral awareness.”

Or at least better behavior. The study, which involved nearly 130 male and female undergraduate students, divvied participants into two rooms—one unscented and one spritzed with citrus-scented Windex. Researchers then conducted two experiments. In the first, the participants were given $12 cash and told that an anonymous partner in the next room expected them to divide it fairly. In practice, the folks in the clean-smelling room returned nearly twice as much money as those in the non-scented room.

In the second experiment, participants in both rooms were asked how willing they would be to donate time and money to the charitable organization Habitat for Humanity. Participants in the clean-scented room not only were more willing to volunteer time, 22% of them were likely to donate money, compared to only 6% of those in the unscented room.