From IWU Magazine, Fall 2012 edition
Crime and cleanliness
Story by KATE ARTHUR
In his experiments, Daniel Maurer (right) measured cleanliness as a factor in determining
guilt or innocence by having some volunteers use hand sanitizer prior to rendering
After his experience as an Eckley scholar, Daniel Maurer will never look at a simple
bottle of hand sanitizer the same way again.
It’s not what’s in the clear gel that interests Maurer, but rather how the sensations
of seeing, smelling and touching it might influence our judgment of others. The psychology
major with an interest in lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) issues is examining
whether feelings about cleanliness and sexual orientation can affect our judgment
of criminal defendants.
In Maurer’s high school class of about 50 students, LGBT issues weren’t usually discussed.
At Wesleyan, he started wondering what caused the dramatic shift in support for gay
rights, from fear in the ’80s brought on by the AIDS epidemic to a U.S. president’s
endorsement of same-sex unions.
When Amanda Vicary, assistant professor of psychology, encouraged him to find a research
project, he pored over literature that combined LGBT issues with criminology. An article
on cleanliness and how it can affect someone’s assessment of an outgroup (a social
group to which an individual does not identify) intrigued him. Specifically, he wondered
whether gay male defendants would be judged more harshly than straight defendants,
especially if cleanliness were a factor.
The hand sanitizer “primed the participants for cleanliness,” says Maurer. “That is
to say, it made it a salient feature, one that is theorized to affect one’s assessment
of an outgroup — in my study, homosexual men.”
Maurer’s research “forms a unique bridge between the domains of criminal justice and
psychology,” says Vicary, whose research interests include social influences on crime
and aggression. “The results of his study can help provide insight into a variety
of areas, including perceptions of homosexuality in the criminal justice system. To
the best of my knowledge, to date no one has investigated whether gay defendants tend
to be judged more harshly than straight defendants.”
For Maurer’s experiment, volunteers read over details of a bank robbery, including
witness and detective statements. Although they never meet the “criminal,” they have
to make a judgment of guilt or innocence.
Some volunteers were handed hand sanitizer along with a clipboard and asked to use
the sanitizer because of the number of volunteers who had handled the clipboard. What
they didn’t know was that this was part of the experiment.
Maurer looked at whether those who used hand sanitizer were more likely to judge gay
defendants as guilty.
“In Western culture, cleanliness and purity are associated with virtuous behavior
and human sexuality is tied to virtuosity,” he says. “We wanted to see if people were
more judgmental of criminals who were perceived as being gay.”
When Maurer’s results are finalized, Vicary hopes they’ll be published in a social
psychology journal. The Eckley program “has given him a great opportunity to explore
what he will be doing in graduate school,” Vicary adds, “and has helped him become
sure of his decision to purse a Ph.D. in social psychology.”
After graduating, Maurer plans to “do a year of humanitarian work in China before
I go off to graduate school.” Maurer is looking at programs where he can continue
his research in gender studies. He’d like to investigate how prejudice influences
politics and may become a social worker, or a college professor.
“My advisor said I had the right idiosyncrasies to be a professor,” he says. “I thoroughly
enjoy the world of academia.”
But there’s one thing he’s not so fond of — hand sanitizer. “I don’t use it,” he says
with a laugh.
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