Clean smells promote ethical and charitable behavior

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Results of a new study show that clean smells promote ethical behavior. The findings come from Katie Liljenquist, a Brigham Young University professor, has widespread implications for helping children, retailers, and charities. Clean rooms help others act more charitable, and can elevate behavior.

The study was simply performed. A few sprays of citrus scented Windex was used to provide a clean smell that in turn was found to make people more honest, ethical and charitable. The study, titled “The Smell of Virtue” compared the behavior of individuals working in rooms with no scent, to those in rooms spritzed with Windex.

One study tested fairness. Individuals were given twelve dollars anonymously and asked to split it equally with others. Those in the clean smelling room returned more money than those in the “normal” smelling room. Individuals in the clean smell room returned $5.33, compared to $2.81 returned by individuals in the normal smelling room.


Another experiment found that clean smells promotes charitable behavior. When participants were asked about their interest in participating in a Habitat for Humanity project, those in the room sprayed with Windex were more likely to volunteer or donate money.

Liljenquist smilingly says, “Could be that getting our kids to clean up their rooms might help them clean up their acts, too.” The findings that clean smells promote ethical and charitable behavior could also be applied to retail outlets that rely on security cameras. “Companies often employ heavy-handed interventions to regulate conduct, but they can be costly or oppressive,” said Liljenquist. “This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior.”

Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and one of the study co-authors says, “Basically, our study shows that morality and cleanliness can go hand-in-hand. 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.”

The findings that clean smells can promote ethical and charitable behavior can help us better understand how to help individuals act morally. Clean smells unconsciously promote better behavior, and could be used by companies and retailers to stimulate others toward acting charitably and ethically.

Source: Brigham Young University