The Lady Macbeth Effect: What It Is And How It Expresses The Feeling Of Guilt

The Lady Macbeth Effect

Since ancient times, water has been seen as a pure element, capable of cleansing not only the body but also the consciousness or even the soul. That is why it is often used symbolically in different acts and ceremonies of contrition or to free oneself from past mistakes.

However, it is not something reserved for the spiritual or religious sphere, but rather it is something common in our daily lives: It’s about the Lady Macbeth effectwhich we are going to talk about throughout this article.

What is the Lady Macbeth effect?

It is known as the Lady Macbeth effect. tendency or need to clean oneself, wash one’s hands, or shower after having committed an act that goes against one’s beliefs and feelings, given the sensation of pleasure and internal discomfort that the contradiction between our belief and our action entails.

It is a response to the cognitive dissonance that is present in the majority of the population, without us being faced with something pathological, and that is due to the need to act to alleviate the discomfort due to incoherence. In other words: we seek to wash our conscience of having done something that we ourselves consider bad or inappropriate and for which we feel guilty. And this washing is literal, since it associates or links physical cleanliness with mental or moral cleanliness: water will cleanse our guilt and discomfort just as it does with real dirt.

Dissonant actions, words and thoughts can be of very different nature or severity. In some cases they can be really severe, but it does not necessarily have to be something traumatic or serious but rather it can come (and in fact is most common) from small lies, fights, theft or even infidelities.

This effect occurs in acts that we perform directly, but also in imagined acts, dreams or thoughts.. It has also been observed even in video games, with players using tricks or cheating.

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In general, we can include any act that seems relevant to us and for which we feel guilty since it contradicts deep-rooted and important values ​​and beliefs for the person in question. It is even possible that it occurs in cases in which the subject himself has not done anything or has not been able to do anything but that arouses guilt, such as a fight between loved ones or the visualization of some type of humiliation.

Interestingly, washing your hands seems to have a positive effect on reducing feelings of guilt: In an experiment carried out by doctors Zhong and Liljenquist, in which after doing an unethical act of typing on a computer, half of the participants were offered to clean themselves with the excuse that the keyboard was not clean. They were all later asked to participate in a second unpaid experiment to help a researcher in trouble. Those who washed showed around 50% less interest in participating than those who did not, the study indicating that they had less need to repair or reduce their sense of guilt.

Why does this effect occur?

The reasons why this trend exists are not completely known, although there is a clear link with conditioning and cultural learning.

On the one hand, we learn that water is capable of removing and cleaning physical dirt. This learning, along with the fact that cleaning promotes well-being and eliminates waste and pathogens, is generalized to other areas such as morality.

Likewise, as we have seen previously, throughout history Water has been associated with purification in many cultures and religions.including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism among others.

The origin of its name

“A little water will clean up the crime.” This phrase, very representative of the effect that is being explained in this article, is part of the story of Macbeth, by William Shakespearea work that is the origin of the name of the effect at hand.

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Throughout the play “Macbeth and Lady Macbeth” we see how Macbeth, a nobleman who achieves recognition in a battle against the Norsemen, succumbs to greed and ambition for power after being named baron by King Duncan.

Together with Lady Macbeth, his wife, he decides to plan and cause the death of the monarch in order to obtain the crown (since both his appointment as baron and his promotion to king were predicted by witches). Once the regicide has been committed, Macbeth exclaims “Will the whole ocean wash away the blood from my hands, or will my hands dye the green sea into an immense scarlet stain?”

It is after this moment that Lady Macbeth utters the opening sentence, proposing that a little water will wash away the guilt of the murder. Despite this, Throughout the story the woman begins to have hallucinations in which he sees the dead man’s blood on his hands due to guilt, and finally ends up committing suicide.

Link with some pathologies

Although as we have said the Macbeth effect It occurs widely in the population without its presence implying anything pathological.the truth is that this effect also manifests itself (and in an exaggerated way) in some types of pathologies.

We see the clearest example in obsessive disorders and specifically in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which is characterized by the repeated appearance of intrusive, recurring thoughts considered unacceptable by those who suffer from them, causing the appearance of anxiety that the The subject usually tries to avoid through different rituals called compulsions (even though this avoidance ultimately feeds the perpetuation of anxiety).

Obsessions and/or compulsions (ritual actions are not always carried out, and obsession can exist without compulsion as in obsessive neurosis) they occupy a large part of the time and often limit the life of those who suffer from it. It is common for people with OCD to be hyper-responsible and have strong feelings of guilt regarding the content of their obsessive thoughts or non-compliance with their rituals (in many cases the subject believes that the compulsion prevents what they have imagined from happening, since it does not occur. It is rare that there is a belief that thinking something is equivalent to doing it).

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Within the disorder itself there are multiple variants regarding obsessions and compulsions, but among the latter one of the most common is precisely that of washing repeatedly. Although in some cases the compulsion is linked to a panic at the idea of ​​infecting or causing illness to people in the immediate environment, in many others washing is a response to the feeling of guilt and an attempt to “wash it away.”

It is linked to the obsession with contamination and mental pollution., the latter being the sensation of being internally dirty or impure without there being any external element or event that generates it. This pollution is an effect of the anxiety and discomfort generated by thinking, along with a strong guilt when the obsessions go against the person’s beliefs. Therefore we can consider that in these cases we would be seeing a pathological Macbeth effect.

In addition to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the Macbeth effect will also be seen more frequently in all those disorders that are associated with feelings of guilt (even if it has no reason to be present. People with post-traumatic stress disorder or syndrome of the survivor may also be examples of populations in which it may occur more frequently.

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