In all likelihood, you’re acquainted with someone who’s a germaphobe. They shudder visibly when you offer them a swig of your soda, pump and dump out the contents of the Purell dispenser in the corner and give death stares at the barista wiping the countertop with a part-sodden rag.

Though some are quick to point out these symptoms as borderline Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, evolutionarily, we do have justified cause for being paranoid about infectious diseases. According to a survey conducted by the global hygiene company SCA, only 71 percent of adults said they washed their hands on a regular basis, and 58 percent said they had seen other people leave a public bathroom without washing their hands.

Yet on some level, our overstated concern for personal hygiene is in our minds. There’s a new theory floating around the social psychology cosmos called embodiment, which basically means that our cognitive processes are grounded in sensory experiences and bodily states. Simplified, we tend to think with our bodies.

Embodiment can be detected looking at the metaphors we engage with on a day-to-day basis – many of them have something to do with the body. We measure our relationships with other people by body lengths: A bad relationship is described as a “distant” one; a good relationship is deemed “close.” We see our minds as needing a kind of food: we have an “appetite” for learning, an “insatiable” curiosity, a “thirst” for knowledge. “Bland” ideas are deemed uninteresting.

Similarly, social psychologists have found that there’s this odd moral cognitive component to our obsessions with hygiene: Physically cleaning ourselves or other people allows us to metaphorically wipe the slate clean.

Studies have discovered that cleaning one’s hands with soap or an antiseptic wipe can diminish feelings of guilt from moral transgressions, whereas engaging in unethical behaviors could increase the appeal of purchasing cleaning products. In one experiment, participants were instructed to tell a lie to an imaginary colleague, and were then asked in a survey how much they were willing to pay for mouthwash and hand sanitizer. Those who engaged in the lie were willing to pay more for the cleaning products than those who did not.

The embodiment hypothesis for the significance of physical cleansing can justify a lot of weird logic in our daily lives. Why we jump into the shower to wash off past memories after a crappy day; why we call virgins “clean” and sluts “dirty”; why baptism involves “cleansing” away our sins. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.

So the next time you reach for that disinfectant, ask yourself: Are you really worried about your personal hygiene, or are you just cleansing your moral agenda?

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