Embodiment as Procedures: Physical Cleansing Changes Goal Priming Effects

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Abstract

Physical cleansing reduces the influence of numerous psychological experiences, such as guilt from immoral behavior, dissonance from free choice, and good/bad luck from winning/losing. How do these domain-general effects occur? We propose an integrative account of cleansing as an embodied procedure of psychological separation. By separating physical traces from a physical target object (e.g., detaching dirt from hands), cleansing serves as the embodied grounding for the separation of psychological traces from a psychological target object (e.g., dissociating prior experience from the present self). This account predicts that cleansing reduces the accessibility of psychological traces and their consequences for judgments and behaviors. Testing these in the context of goal priming, we find that wiping one’s hands (vs. not) decreases the mental accessibility (Experiment 1), behavioral expression (Experiment 2), and judged importance (Experiments 3–4) of previously primed goals (e.g., achievement, saving, fitness). But if a goal is primed after cleansing, its importance gets amplified instead (Experiment 3). Based on the logic of moderation-of-process, an alternative manipulation that psychologically separates a primed goal from the present self produces the same effects, but critically, the effects vanish once people wipe their hands clean (Experiment 4), consistent with the notion that cleansing functions as an embodied procedure of psychological separation. These findings have implications for the flexibility of goal pursuit. More broadly, our procedural perspective generates novel predictions about the scope and mechanisms of cleansing effects and may help integrate embodied and related phenomena.

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