Kendall Eskine and his colleagues invited 54 university students one at a time into a room for testing and told half of them that the chair they were sitting in had recently been used by a student who'd been caught stealing from the department. All participants then completed a personality test about how they were feeling "right now". This included items relating to anger, sadness and guilt. Example guilt items included "I feel bad about something" and "I feel like apologising".
The key finding was that students sitting in a chair previously used by a cheat scored higher on feelings of guilt, but just the same on other emotions. This "suggests moral transfer" said the researchers. A second study with 48 more participants was similar but this time the students shook hands with another person who they were told afterwards had cheated in his exams. This led them to experience increased guilt of their own, especially if they scored highly on a measure of disgust sensitivity. The moral transfer was reduced if they were wearing a glove, which some of them were as part of a supposed consumer test.
These new findings build on past research that showed people preferred to avoid coming into contact with clothing or objects used by a murderer, even though they'd been washed. The new research also complements studies that reveal the way we think of objects as contaminated by the essence of their owners - hence the value of objects that belonged to dead celebrities.
Eskine's team said there are lots of questions yet to be answered. For instance how might moral transfer affect the source offender? Could they come to feel progressively less guilty as they touch increasing numbers of other people? Relatedly, is it possible for "good" moral emotions to pass between people? Supporting this idea, a study published in 2011 found that using a putter they thought belonged to a famous pro led participants to putt more accurately and perceive the target hole as bigger.
Eskine and co's new study is thought-provoking, no doubt, and has intriguing real-life implications especially for those working with offenders. However its impact is undermined by the use of a small student sample and what the researchers admitted were "heavy-handed" cover stories relating to the cheat and thief. There's a risk the participants gave the answers they thought the researchers were looking for.
Eskine, K. J., Novreske, A., and Richards, M. (2013). Moral Contagion Effects in Everyday Interpersonal Encounters. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology