Another’s punishment cleanses the self: Evidence for a moral cleansing function of punishing transgressors

Zachary K. Rothschild, Mark J. Landau, Lucas A. Keefer, Daniel L Sullivan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Separate lines of research show that individuals: (a) understand immorality metaphorically as physical contamination; (b) project undesirable self-attributes onto others; and (c) view punishment as eliminating a transgressor’s immorality. Integrating these findings, we hypothesized that individuals project guilt over their own immorality—represented as physical contamination—onto another transgressor whose punishment restores their own moral and physical purity. In Study 1, personal immorality salience decreased felt physical cleanliness unless another transgressor was punished. In Study 2, personal immorality salience led participants to see another transgressor as physically dirtier, an effect mediated by guilt. Furthermore, the punishment of the contaminated transgressor restored participants’ personal morality and eliminated restorative moral behavior. In Study 3, punishing a transgressor who served as a projection target for participants’ immorality removed felt physical contamination indirectly through decreased guilt. These studies are the first to show that another’s punishment can “cleanse” the self of “dirty” immorality feelings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)722-741
Number of pages20
JournalMotivation and Emotion
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 15 2015


  • Conceptual metaphor
  • Defensive projection
  • Morality
  • Punishment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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