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Grounded procedures: A proximate mechanism for the psychology of cleansing and other physical actions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 May 2020

Spike W. S. Lee
Rotman School of Management and Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, ONM5S 3E6,;
Norbert Schwarz
Department of Psychology, Mind & Society Center, and Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA90089.;


Experimental work has revealed causal links between physical cleansing and various psychological variables. Empirically, how robust are they? Theoretically, how do they operate? Major prevailing accounts focus on morality or disgust, capturing a subset of cleansing effects, but cannot easily handle cleansing effects in non-moral, non-disgusting contexts. Building on grounded views on cognitive processes and known properties of mental procedures, we propose grounded procedures of separation as a proximate mechanism underlying cleansing effects. This account differs from prevailing accounts in terms of explanatory kind, interpretive parsimony, and predictive scope. Its unique and falsifiable predictions have received empirical support: Cleansing attenuates or eliminates otherwise observed influences of prior events (1) across domains and (2) across valences. (3) Cleansing manipulations produce stronger effects the more strongly they engage sensorimotor capacities. (4) Reversing the causal arrow, motivation for cleansing is triggered more readily by negative than positive entities. (5) Conceptually similar effects extend to other physical actions of separation. On the flipside, grounded procedures of connection are also observed. Together, separation and connection organize prior findings relevant to multiple perspectives (e.g., conceptual metaphor, sympathetic magic) and open up new questions. Their predictions are more generalizable than the specific mappings in conceptual metaphors, but more fine-grained than the broad assumptions of grounded cognition. This intermediate level of analysis sheds light on the interplay between mental and physical processes.

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