An unwanted kiss from a good-looking virtuous man. Still feeling dirty?

We know that physical sullying, immorality and shame can all be associated with feelings of bodily and mental dirtiness, but it’s not entirely clear how all these things interact. For example, for a heterosexual woman, which is worse: having a kiss forced on you by an otherwise moral man, or having a consensual kiss with an immoral man? Corinna Elliott and Adam Radomsky have investigated and they say their findings could prove useful to therapists treating people with obsessive compulsive disorder or victims of sexual assault.

Female undergrads, 148 of them, listened to an audio recording describing a scene at a party in which a woman is kissed by man. In all cases the man was described as physically attractive, but some of the undergrads listened to a version in which he was a friendly, helpful chap, whilst others listened to a version in which he was described as a bit of a cad – a liar, cheat and a thief. Also, half the women heard a version in which the kiss was consensual, whilst the other half heard a version in which the man forced the kiss on the woman. In all cases the participants’ task was to imagine as vividly as possible that they were that woman.

Questionnaires completed afterwards showed how the different permutations of the man’s integrity and the nature of the kiss interacted to affect the women’s feelings of dirtiness, their urge to wash, their emotions and whether or not they really did go and wash their hands or rinse out their mouths.

Unsurprisingly, a forced kiss from an immoral man was the worst-case scenario, leaving the women with strong feelings of psychological and bodily contamination; afterwards 4 out of 35 them literally either washed out their mouths or washed their hands. By contrast, none of the women who imagined a consensual kiss with a moral man washed afterwards and they also reported the lowest levels of psychological contamination.

More interesting are the findings for the women who imagined a forced kiss from an otherwise moral man. It turns out they felt just as sullied as women who imagined a forced kiss from an immoral man, and four of them also washed afterwards.

What about a consensual kiss with an immoral man? This provoked weaker feelings of dirtiness than for either of the forced kisses, but still much stronger feelings of dirtiness than a consensual kiss with a moral man. Three of the undergrads washed after imagining this scenario.

In other words, the researchers explained, there’s an asymmetry. A man’s prior morality doesn’t prevent the sullying effect of a forced kiss, and yet a “moral” or consensual kiss is unable to eradicate the dirtying effects of a man’s immoral reputation. Indeed, so-called “moral” men who imposed unwanted kisses on women were subsequently rated by the female participants as immoral.

“This phenomenon is akin to the asymmetrical relationship present between ‘contaminated’ substances and ‘non-contaminated’ substances,” the researchers explained. “For example, a drop of blood could ‘contaminate’ a glass of purified water; however, a drop of purified water could not ‘decontaminate’ a glass of blood.”

ELLIOTT, C. (2009). Analyses of mental contamination: Part I, experimental manipulations of morality. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47 (12), 995-1003 DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2009.03.004

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

9 thoughts on “An unwanted kiss from a good-looking virtuous man. Still feeling dirty?”

  1. The very idea that an unwanted kiss could somehow feel less dirty if it was known to be from a Nice Guy seems very strange. Any kind of unwanted closeness feels bad, no matter who it's from.

    Did they do any of these studies on men? (i.e looking at how they reacte to unwanted kisses from moral/immoral women). Might show an actual interesting result, rather than just something rather obvious.

  2. Lab Rat,

    That jumped out at me, too. I can just imagine the headline:

    Scientific Study Reveals That Consent Is Kind Of A Big Deal

  3. Isn't there some sort of inherent contradiction here? How can someone be 'moral' if they are forcing an unwanted kiss on someone? It's a bit like asking “which is worse, being raped by a rapist or being raped by a non-rapist?”

  4. can you really make such explicit conclusions based on FOUR people in each category washing their hands?!?!

  5. From my reading, more than 4/35 indicated on the questionnaire that they would wash their hands/mouth. The 4 is specially mentioned because they *physically* washed themselves from the imaginary scenario.

  6. Of course women felt “sullied” after a forced kiss from an “otherwise moral man.” There's no such thing as a moral man who forces himself on people, for pete's sake. Are these researchers brain-dead?

  7. I guess it should be a man who was perceived to be moral before that kiss happened!

  8. It seems as if the researchers are aiming at a broader idea of contamination that goes beyond the initial disturbing social situation in the narrative (a MacGuffin perhaps?). Definitely needs a larger study as David says.

    I think one of the ideas behind the social situation is something about being damned no matter what, which is a key emotion behind OCD. I would like to know to what extent, in the narrative, the kiss is “forced.” One could imagine a good guy kissing a woman he's in love with, but doesn't know what she thinks – he will find out with the kiss. This is a completely common situation but something that people worry about. The person who gives the kiss doesn't know how it will be received but is giving it in honesty. Is this a forced kiss? What's the definition here?

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