In Box

Watch Yourself Clean

How to shake off those regrets -- no Lady Macbeth routine required.

Different cultures have long recognized the transcendent power of ritual hand-washing. From Shintoism to Judaism to Hinduism to Islam, major religious traditions require hand-washing before certain meals or prayers to ensure clean palms -- and a pure spirit.

Turns out, there really is some emotional value in a good wash. Research shows that even watching someone else wash his or her hands can make a person feel less guilty about past misdeeds.

Researchers at the University of Grenoble, the Catholic University of Louvain, and Ohio State University asked 65 adults to remember and write down a wrong they had committed against someone close to them. The participants were then asked to either use a wet wipe to clean their hands, watch a two-minute video of someone else using a wet wipe, or watch a two-minute video of a person typing. Afterward, they were asked to take a few tests to rate how guilty they felt and -- only if they wanted -- to help a Ph.D. student by completing questionnaires about local public transportation and returning them in three weeks.

Those who watched the typing video had the highest average guilt scores; those who washed their own hands scored the lowest. Meanwhile, participants whose hands had never gotten wet but who had watched others wash scored in between, demonstrating the power that even a vicarious cleansing has to send feelings of guilt down the drain. (To be sure, these participants' average guilt scores fell closer to those of the people who had watched the typing video.)

As for the questionnaires, those were meant to test what researchers call "prosocial behavior": actions that, in assisting others, help alleviate guilt. Participants who had washed their own hands returned the fewest questionnaires, those who had watched the typing video returned the most, and vicarious washers returned at a rate somewhere in between -- yet another indication that watching a hand-washing video made them feel that they had less for which to atone.

The power of even the briskest, most thorough scrub only goes so far when it comes to our emotions, of course. But the next time you forget to call your mother, a quick viewing of a hand-washing video on YouTube (they do exist) may just help you shake off those feelings of regret.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

In Box

Law & Order: Rogue States Unit

What a peek inside America's prisons can tell us about U.S.-Iran relations.

Despite its recent efforts at negotiation, the United States traditionally has been more confrontational in its approach to Iran than European countries, which have urged closer ties with Tehran. What explains the difference? In 2002, scholar Robert Kagan argued that the dove-hawk divide was a function of a disparity in military might: Because the United States remained a great power even as European defense budgets shrank, it was more likely to flex its muscles. Kagan wrote, "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."

However, new research indicates that a better predictor lies in an unlikely place: domestic courts and prisons.

A study by Amsterdam-based political scientists Wolfgang Wagner and Michal Onderco found that how countries treat criminals at home helps predict how they will deal with "deviance" on the global stage -- particularly by so-called rogue states. Wagner and Onderco looked at the behavior of 34 democracies toward Iran from 2002, when the country's nuclear program became public, through 2009. The researchers compared that behavior with various factors, from military strength to economic interdependence, that might influence how one state treats another. They found that martial power only played a slight role in making a state more confrontational and that increased trade did not, for the most part, make countries put on kid gloves.

Rather, they found a relationship between a country's level of aggression toward Iran -- how hostile it might be in public statements, for instance, or how intently it might advocate for sanctions -- and the percentage of that state's population in prison. The more people behind bars, the more confrontational a state was likely to be. The same relationship held when the researchers looked at states' approaches to North Korea.

Why should strict pursuit of law and order at home translate into foreign policy? Wagner and Onderco argue that it is a matter of cultural norms transferring across arenas. Countries with a culture of "retributive" justice -- focused on punishing wrongdoing and protecting the public -- will pursue more belligerent policies toward states like Iran and North Korea. Meanwhile, countries that believe in "restorative" justice -- avoiding punishment that doesn't help reincorporate the convicted into society or address the underlying factors behind crimes -- will be more accommodating toward the world's scofflaws.

Wagner and Onderco say their research shows that how countries behave toward states like Iran is part and parcel of the same cultural differences that have produced Germany's strong social safety net and America's strict drug laws. "Realizing that, for other states, there's a different mindset -- this could contribute to some better understanding among the Western states" of how each approaches international bad guys, Wagner notes.

So Americans may indeed be from Mars and Europeans from Venus -- just not for the reason you thought.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault