Colin West and Chen-Bo Zhong
Current Opinion in Psychology
Available online 3 November 2015
Moral cleansing describes behaviors aimed at restoring moral self-worth in response to past transgressions. People are motivated to maintain a moral self-image and to eliminate apparent gaps between their perceived self-image and their desired moral self. Moral cleansing behaviors fall into three over-arching categories. Restitution cleansing behaviors directly resolve past misdeeds. Behavioral cleansing involves counter-balancing across multiple dimensions of the moral self whereby threats in one sub-domain are alleviated by bolstering a separate sub-domain. Symbolic cleansing includes restitution behaviors that are only symbolically connected to the provoking moral threat, such as physical or ritual cleansing. The moral cleansing literature seeks to understand these seemingly erratic sequences of compensatory behaviors.
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” -Oscar Wilde
• We review the literature on the psychology of moral cleansing.
• There are three categories: restitution, behavioral, and symbolic cleansing.
• The psychological mechanism is based on a malleable moral self-image.
• Moral cleansing examines the implications of sequential ethical decision-making.
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