From the most remote antiquity, water has been seen as a pure element, capable of cleansing not only the body but also the conscience or even the soul. That is why it is often used symbolically in different acts and ceremonies of contrition or to free oneself from the errors of the past.

However, this is not something reserved for the spiritual or religious sphere, but something that is common in our daily lives: is the Lady Macbeth effect , which we will talk about throughout this article.

What is the Lady Macbeth effect?

The Lady Macbeth effect is known as the tendency or need to cleanse oneself, wash one’s hands or take a shower after having committed an act that goes against our beliefs and feelings, in the face of the sensation of internal likes and dislikes that the contradiction between our belief and our action causes.

This is a response to the cognitive dissonance that is present in most of the population, without being pathological, and which is due to the need to act to alleviate the discomfort of incoherence. In other words, it seeks to wash away our awareness of having done something that we ourselves consider bad or inappropriate and for which we feel guilty. And this washing is literal, since it is associated or linked to physical and mental or moral cleanliness: water will cleanse our guilt and discomfort just as it does with real dirt.

Actions, words and dissonant thoughts can be of very different nature or severity. In some cases they can be really severe, but it does not necessarily have to be something traumatic or serious but can come (and in fact is the most frequent) from small lies, fights, thefts or even infidelities.

This effect occurs in acts that we perform directly, but also in imagined acts, dreams or thoughts . It has also been observed even in video games, with players employing tricks or cheating.

In general, we can include any act that we feel relevant and for which we feel guilty because it contradicts deep-rooted values and beliefs that are important to the person in question. It is even possible that this may occur in cases where the subject himself has done nothing or has been unable to do anything but which arouse guilt, such as a fight between loved ones or the visualization of some kind of humiliation.

Interestingly, hand washing seems to have a positive effect on reducing the feeling of guilt : in an experiment conducted by Dr. Zhong and Dr. Liljenquist, after making a computer type an unethical act, half of the participants were offered to clean themselves with the excuse that the keyboard was not clean. They were then all asked to participate in a second, unpaid experiment to help a struggling researcher. Those who cleaned up showed about 50% less interest in participating than those who did not, with the study indicating that they had less need to repair or lessen their sense of guilt.

Why does this effect occur?

The reasons for this trend are not fully known, although there is a clear link with cultural conditioning and learning .

On the one hand, we learn that water is capable of removing and cleaning physical dirt. This learning, together with the fact that cleaning promotes well-being and eliminates waste and pathogens, is generalized to other areas such as morality.

Likewise, as we have already seen, throughout history water has been associated with purification in a large number of cultures and religions , including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism among others.

The origin of its designation

“A little water will clean up the crime.” This phrase, which is very representative of the effect that is being explained in this article, is part of the story of Macbeth, by William Shakespeare , a work that is the origin of the name of the effect that we are dealing with.

Throughout the play “Macbeth and Lady Macbeth” we see how Macbeth, a nobleman who achieves recognition in a battle against the Nordics, succumbs to greed and ambition for power after being appointed Baron by King Duncan.

Together with Lady Macbeth, his wife, he decides to plan and provoke the death of the monarch in order to obtain the crown (since both his appointment as baron and his promotion to king were predicted by some witches). When the regicide is committed, Macbeth exclaims “Will the whole ocean be able to wash the blood from my hands, or will my hands dye the green sea in an immense scarlet stain?

It is after that moment that Lady Macbeth utters the opening sentence, proposing that a little water will cleanse the guilt of the murder. In spite of this, throughout the story the woman begins to have hallucinations in which she sees the blood of the dead man on her hands because of the guilt, and finally ends up committing suicide.

Link with some pathologies

Although, as we have said, the Macbeth effect is widespread in the population without its presence implying anything pathological , the truth is that this effect also manifests itself (and moreover in an exaggerated way) in some types of pathologies.

The clearest example is seen in obsessive disorders and specifically in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which is characterized by the repeated appearance of intrusive, recurrent thoughts considered unacceptable by those who suffer from them, causing the appearance of an anxiety that the subject usually tries to avoid through different rituals called compulsions (although such avoidance basically feeds the perpetuation of anxiety).

Obsessions and/or compulsions (ritual actions are not always carried out, and there can be obsession without compulsion as in obsessive neurosis) occupy much of the time and often limit the life of the person who suffers it. It’s common for people with OCD to be hyper-responsible and to have strong feelings of guilt about the content of their obsessive thoughts or the failure to perform their rituals (in many cases the subject believes that the compulsion prevents what he or she has imagined from happening, since it’s not uncommon for there to be a belief that thinking something is equivalent to doing it).

Within the disorder itself, there are many variations on obsessions and compulsions, but among the latter, one of the most frequent is precisely that of repeated washing. Although in some cases the compulsion is linked to a panic at the idea of infecting or causing illness to people in the immediate environment, in many others washing is a response to a sense of guilt and an attempt to “wash it off”.

It is linked to the obsession of contamination and mental pollution , the latter being the sensation of being internally dirty or impure without any external element or event generating it. Such pollution is an effect of anxiety and discomfort generated by thought, together with a strong guilt when the obsessions go against the person’s beliefs. Therefore we can consider that in these cases we would be seeing a Macbeth effect in pathological degree.

In addition to OCD, the Macbeth effect will also be seen more often in all those disorders that are associated with feelings of guilt (even if guilt has no reason to be present). People with post-traumatic stress disorder or survivor’s syndrome may also be examples of populations in which it may occur more frequently.

Referencias bibliográficas:

  • Fairbrother, N., Newth, S., & Rachman, S. (2005). Mental pollution: Sentimientos de suciedad sin contacto físico. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 43, 121-130.
  • Khan, M. y Grisham, J. R. (2018).Limpiando tu conciencia: Investigando el efecto Macbeth en individuos con preocupaciones de alta contaminación obsesivo-compulsiva. Revista de Psicopatología Experimental, 1-10.
  • Shakespeare, W. (2010). Macbeth. Boston, MA: English Play Press. (Obra original publicada en 1699).
  • Zhong, C. B. y Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing Away Your Sins: Amenaza a la moralidad y a la limpieza física. Science, 313 (5792): 1451-1452.