Study Says: Improving Our Environment Can Improve Our Behavior

The odor in a room is enough to elicit a stronger impulse towards fairness, researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University have claimed.

They believe their research proves there is a correlation between hygiene and decency and that by improving our environment we can improve our behavior.

The research found an increase in ethical behavior when the scent of a fruit-scented cleaner fills a room.
Professor Adam Galinsky, the psychologist who conducted the study, said it shows “morality and cleanliness” are inextricably linked. “Researchers have known for years that scents play an active role in reviving positive or negative experiences. Now, our research can offer more insight into the links between people’s charitable actions and their surroundings.”


Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Brigham Young University Marriott School of Management said: “This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behaviour. The data tells us a compelling story about how much we rely upon cleanliness cues to make a wide range of judgments about others.”


The study, titled “The Smell of Virtue”, made subjects carry out several tasks, with some asked to work in unscented rooms, while others worked in rooms freshly sprayed with lemon-scented cleaner.


The first experiment evaluated fairness. Participants were given $12 and were asked to decide how much of it to keep and how much to return to their partners who had trusted them to divide it fairly. Subjects in clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, returning a significantly higher share of the cash.


The average amount of cash given back by the people in the “normal” room was $2.81. But the people in the clean-scented room gave back an average of $5.33.


The second experiment evaluated whether clean scents would encourage charitable behavior. Subjects indicated their interest in volunteering and their interest in donating funds to a charitable cause.


Participants surveyed in the clean-smelling room were significantly more interested in volunteering (4.2 on a 7-point scale) than those in a normal room (3.3).  Meanwhile, 22% of participants in the clean-smelling room said they’d like to donate money, compared to only 6% of those in a normal room.


Follow-up questions revealed that participants did not notice the aroma in the room and that their mood at the time of the experiment did not affect the outcomes.


Steve Wright Chairman of the British Cleaning Council said: “We all know that cleanliness is key to encouraging a sense of pride in local areas, but this is the first time a link has been proved between people’s behavior and their surroundings. I hope this encourages more people to get involved with efforts to make to make their area cleaner and greener, and the cleaning industry welcomes the opportunity to work with local councils and government as we strive to create a cleaner environment.”

This research will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science magazine.

The British Cleaning Council, established in 1982, represents the UK cleaning industry. Its mission is to coordinate the affairs of the industry, provide a forum to raise the profile of professional cleaning, and promote and encourage improvements in health, hygiene and general cleanliness standards.