Lady Macbeth effect

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A painting by Gabriel von Max depicting Lady Macbeth attempting to clean her hand with the folded edge of her dress

The supposed Lady Macbeth effect or Macbeth effect is a priming effect said to occur when response to a cleaning cue is increased after having been induced by a feeling of shame.[1] The effect is named after the Lady Macbeth character in the Shakespeare play Macbeth; she imagined bloodstains on her hands after committing murder.

In one experiment, different groups of participants were asked to recall a good or bad past deed, after which they were asked to fill in the letters of three incomplete words: "W_ _H", "SH_ _ER" and "S_ _P". Those who had been asked to recall a bad deed were about 60% more likely to respond with cleansing-related words like "wash", "shower" and "soap" instead of alternatives such as "wish", "shaker" or "stop".[1]

In another experiment, experimenters were able to reduce choice-supportive bias by having subjects engage in forms of self-cleaning.[2]

The effect is apparently localized enough that those who had been asked to lie verbally preferred an oral cleaning product and those asked to lie in writing preferred a hand cleaning product over the other kind of cleanser and other control items.[3]

Other researchers have been unable to replicate the basic effect using larger samples.[4][5] Replication difficulties have emerged for three out of four of Zhong and Liljenquist's original studies (i.e., Study 2, Study 3, and Study 4).[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Zhong, Chen-Bo; Katie Liljenquist (2006). "Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing". Science. 313 (5792): 1451–1452. doi:10.1126/science.1130726. PMID 16960010.
  2. ^ Lee, Spike W. S.; Norbert Schwarz (2010). "Washing away postdecisional dissonance". Science. 328 (5979): 709. doi:10.1126/science.1186799. PMID 20448177.
  3. ^ Lee, Spike W. S.; Norbert Schwarz (2010). "Dirty Hands and Dirty Mouths: Embodiment of the Moral-Purity Metaphor Is Specific to the Motor Modality Involved in Moral Transgression". Psychological Science. 21: 1423–1425. doi:10.1177/0956797610382788. PMID 20817782.
  4. ^ Fayard, Jennifer; et al. (2009). "Is cleanliness next to godliness? Dispelling old wives' tales: Failure to replicate Zhong and Liljenquist (2006)" (PDF). Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis. 6: 21–30.
  5. ^ Earp, B. D., Everett, J. A. C., Madva, E. N., & Hamlin, J. K. (in press). Out, damned spot: Can the "Macbeth Effect" be replicated? Basic and Applied Social Psychology, in press. Article available here:
  6. ^