Ethics and Dirty Toilets

FIFA’s Toilets

Are the toilets in FIFA’s headquarters to blame?

By now you probably have heard that executives of the most powerful sports body in the world, FIFA, have been indicted for fraud spanning over 24 four years. If you have not read the indictment you can read a summary at this link to the Justice Department details.

If you prefer a more comedic take on the situation we recommend John Oliver’s Commentary below:

OK, But Why Blame the Toilets?

While we can never know for sure if dirty toilets played a part (perhaps someone should check), recent studies have shown that dirty toilets can cause a person’s moral compass to enter the Bermuda triangle.

A study published in the November 2014 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes by Karen Page Winterich, Andrea C. Morales, and Vikas Mittal reveals that just the image of dirty toilets can increase one’s self-interest unethical behavior (i.e. cheating).

In the study participants were shown the "Worst Toilet in Scotland" scene of the movie Trainspotting (great movie by the way) and other participants were shown a "neutral" scene from a documentary of coral reefs.

The participants who saw the disgusting toilet were more likely exhibit self-interest unethical behaviors right after viewing the video then the people who saw the neutral video about coral reefs. The study states:

"Specifically, 67% of individuals in the disgust condition chose to send their partner the deceptive message compared to 35% of individuals in the neutral condition sending the deceptive message.""Protect thyself: How affective self-protection increases self-interested, unethical behavior" -Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes’s November 2014 issue

Protecting the Self – Link to the Past

"He was a bold man that first eat an oyster," Johanthan Swift

The title of the study "Protect thyself: How effective self-protection increases self-interested, unethical behavior" gives a clue to why a relationship exists between ethics and disgust. The reason seems to be related to survival and self-preservation instincts. Being repulsed by foul looking, tasting and smelly things has a survival advantage – you are less likely to get a disease. Whoever first dared to eat an oyster must have been pretty hungry to overcome this natural repulsion.

The study performed two more experiments to test the disgust effect, one involved physically handling perceived neutral and dirty products. The neutral products were items like light bulbs and soap and the "dirty" products were items like antidiarrheal medicine, and diapers. The other experiment involved the participants writing about either a disgusting experience, or about their typical evening. In both cases the unethical behavior persisted as being significantly different from the neutral control group

Thus, the implications go beyond just keeping the bathroom clean and could apply to physical handling of items and even situations that trigger disgusting thoughts or memories. But you can not control your environment all the time and you certainly cannot control what people are thinking. So what practically can be done?

An Ethical Cleanser

The study performed the movie experiment again to answer this question. A different set of participants were shown both the dirty toilet movie scene and movie about coral reefs. But this time after the viewing the participants were asked to evaluate two groups of products, some participants evaluated cleansing type products such as Lysol disinfectant wipes and Windex window cleaner other participants evaluated non-cleansing or neutral products such as Post-it notes and Bic pens.

Those who handled the neutral products (pens, notes) and saw the disgusting toilet scene would still cheat their partner more than the people watching the coral reef movie. However, those that handled the cleansing type products (window cleaner and disinfectant) after watching the dirty toilet did not show an increased propensity to cheat their partner (over the neutral group).

So cleanliness may actually be close to godliness behavior, which was not actually said but inferred from several Bible passages– Isaiah is close:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil (Isaiah 1:16 KJV)

Or if you prefer the version in "Zero" from The Smashing Pumpkins:


Implications for Cleaning

We know you care about keeping your facilities clean for many reasons: improving appearance leading to higher customer satisfaction, the better hygiene, and now you can add promoting a more ethical workplace as another reason. As discussed, you cannot control everything however you can be more aware of situations or context which might elicit a disgust reaction in your employees.

In addition, while the focus on employees (or executives in FIFA) is certainly justified, you may also consider those that have to clean up the mess as well – outsourced contractors or in-house staff. Employees whose job it is to do the "dirty" work may be impacted often. For both the observer and the poor person cleaning up, you can devise cleansing opportunities to potentially negate the unethical effects.

One idea is to thank employees for their efforts in cleaning up a disgusting mess with the gift of a small hand sanitizer or other type of clean product. For observers impacted, you can make hand sanitizer stations or other type of clean products like hand wipes available.

More Research

As with most good studies, more research is needed into the effects and implications for policy decisions. We would like to thank the folks at NPR for bringing the story to our attention. You can listen to their broadcast here.

Finally, for those who are interested in the movie clip I have included it below. Please do not make any ethical decisions right after watching. You have been warned.

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