In the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s conscience awakens after she murders Duncan traitorously. She begins to hallucinate and sees bloodstains on her hands. In a state of panic, she wrings her hands, trying to remove the stains. “Out, damn spot! Out I say!” she cries, as guilt engulfs her. The reader sees a connection between sin, salvation and physical cleanliness in this scene. Today, four centuries after the famous play was written, researchers Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist have concluded on the basis of a social experiment that this connection is a scientific fact.
The researchers are among the first to explain sin and its psychological impact on people theoretically. In their experiment, Zhong and Liljenquist asked volunteers to recall good or bad deeds from their past. Then, they told them to place the missing letters in the following words: W_ _H, SH_ _ER, and S_ _P. The results were astonishing as well as intriguing. Participants who recalled unethical acts wrote WASH, SHOWER, and SOAP, while individuals who thought about good memories formed random words like WISH, SHAKER, and STEP. This led the researchers to put forth a theory that when people think about their immoral actions, they mostly also think about salvation. They believe they have a grimy conscience that they want to ‘clean’ somehow, with water or through other means.