Want to Promote an Ethical Environment? Cleanliness Is Key

tidy-work-spacePopular wisdom suggests that a messy work space is the product of a creative and unique mind. At least one study has found support for this claim, noting that a messy space can be a source of creativity and inspiration. If you’re concerned about promoting an ethical environment, though, it might be time to rethink your work space. According to a collection of three different Rice University studies, the feelings of disgust associated with an unclean work space might give rise to unethical behavior.

How Disgust Changes Behavior

Disgust helps protect people from dangerous or questionable situations. The disgust you feel when looking at rotten food, for example, prevents you from eating a potentially toxic meal. The study’s authors speculated that disgust might make people more self-interested, decreasing their willingness to help or notice others. After all, disgust can be an overpowering emotion that provokes an immediate desire to escape the disgusting situation. 

Ethics and Disgust

To test their hypothesis about how disgust affects behavior, researchers induced disgust in nearly 600 participants. In one trial, participants contemplated “disgusting” products such as cat litter, incontinence products, and anti-diarrhea medication. Researchers asked a second group to write an essay about their most disgusting memory, and a third group watched a toilet scene from the movie Trainspotting.

After inducing feelings of disgust, researchers administered a series of tests to evaluate participants’ willingness to lie and cheat for financial benefit. Those who reported higher levels of disgust were also more likely to lie, cheat, and engage in other self-centered behaviors.

In a second trial, researchers induced a state of disgust, then asked participants to contemplate various household cleaners. Participants who evaluated the cleaners were no more likely to engage in dishonest behavior than those who did not experience disgust.

The study’s authors believe their results point to the value of a clean environment. When people feel disgusted by their surroundings, they’re less likely to behave ethically. But when that disgust is “cleaned”—either metaphorically, by thinking about cleaning products, or literally, by removing the source of the disgust—people may behave more ethically.

A 2008 sociological experiment made a similar observation after evaluating the effects of urban disorder, such as litter and graffiti, on people’s behavior. Researchers found that passersby were more likely to participate in vandalism and other minor infractions in environments where these kinds of activities were already taking place. This study was based on the “broken windows theory,” introduced in the early 1980s by Dr. George Kelling to explain how dilapidated areas, like abandoned buildings with broken windows, inspire further vandalism.

Of course, an unclean environment that doesn’t promote disgust, such as a slightly disheveled desk, is unlikely to lead to unethical behavior. For managers, parents, and other people who perpetually ask others to clean up their mess, though, this study provides one more point in favor of a clean work space.


  1. Can the can. (2008, November 20). Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/12630201
  2. Falk, J. (2014, November 13). Rice U. study: Disgust leads people to lie and cheat; cleanliness promotes ethical behavior. Retrieved from http://news.rice.edu/2014/11/13/rice-u-study-disgust-leads-people-to-lie-and-cheat-cleanliness-promotes-ethical-behavior/

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Joe

    November 19th, 2014 at 11:39 AM

    How is it then that our office manager has the messiest desk of all of us? I would never suspect her of being unethical, but it does make me wonder what her home looks like…

  • T C

    November 19th, 2014 at 8:34 PM

    A clean environment promotes good ideas and in general a sense of well being. The idea that it can promote ethical behavior is not far fetched at all. I am quite in agreement with this. An unclean environment would most probably lead to negative thoughts and also in unethical behavior.

    Yet another reason for us all to clean up those desks I suppose. I for one cannot tolerate a messy space around me. Just cannot rest until everything is fixed.

  • Talitha

    November 20th, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    I guess that in many ways if you are in charge somewhere you need to think about the kinds of employees that you would like to have working for you and how to promote a high level of responsibility- the things that you are going to want to see from them are orderliness and a commitment to work and a good work ethic. I think that if the environment screams out that a bunch of slobs work here then that is probably the level of work that you are going to receive.

  • Bonnie

    November 20th, 2014 at 3:50 PM

    Not true all the time though because look at how many doctors and lawyers offices are the victims of embezzlement for example from employees and you know that those places have to be clean.

  • TR

    November 20th, 2014 at 10:57 PM

    Clean desk or a messy one, nothing is more important than intent. If one wants to do something unethical they are going to do it anyway clean environment or not!

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