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Loyola study: Bad morals are contagious, even through handshakes

May 24, 2013

If a person comes into contact with an evil-doer, even indirectly, is it contagious? Newly published research by Loyola University New Orleans psychology professor Kendall Eskine, Ph.D., says bad morals can spread through physical contact, such as a handshake, or even through shared contact with inanimate objects.

The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that people who shake hands with a morally tainted person actually experience immorality themselves in the form of guilt, according to Eskine. In the same way, people who sit in a chair previously occupied by a person they perceive as immoral, experience the same guilt.

“Morality can be as contagious as viruses or diseases,” Eskine said.

In Eskine’s study, participants were asked to evaluate rubber gloves for a consumer rating survey. While some were wearing the gloves and some were not, a student entered the room and introduced himself as a candidate running for a student government position as he shook hands with all study participants. After the candidate left the room, participants were told he cheats on exams, plagiarizes essays and lies to both faculty and students.

Students who weren’t wearing a glove and made bare hand contact during the handshake experienced a stronger sense of guilt compared to those wearing gloves, the research reports.

“Other veins of research have shown that physical and moral disgust is processed in highly similar ways in the physical brain, which explains why immoral behavior physically contaminates objects,” Eskine said.

Another study included in the research showed that those who sat in the same chairs as an unethical person experienced significant guilt as well, illustrating that morals are indirectly passed through inanimate objects.

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