The Intersection of Science and Business
The latest advice: Trade your oppressive HR practices for a bottle of citrus-scented Windex.

I’m a little annoyed with a scientist as I write this, and so I’m off on a rant. Since rants garner more readers than logic (say scientists), I’ll continue it here — making this a column with nothing more relevant to Madison businesses than the latest scientific business advice. You can decide how relevant the advice is to you after you read it. I’ll guess “not very.”

A recent online article was featured in the “science” tab on Yahoo! with the headline “Cleanliness May Foster Morality.” It caught my attention.

Katie Lijenquist of Brigham Young University led the study. In one experiment, research subjects were given $12 cash each. They had to individually decide how much of it to keep or give back to an anonymous donor partner who, they were told, was in the next room. Those unseen partners trusted them to “divide it fairly.” On average, folks in a “normal room” gave back $2.81. However, subjects in a “clean-smelling room” (spritzed with a common citrus-scented window cleaner) gave back an average $5.33.

Researchers claim that the scenting was the only difference between the two groups. Post experiment, the “scent” subjects did not report noticing any odor in the room.

There was a second experiment: This time subjects were asked to volunteer for a Habitat for Humanity service project. The “fresh scent” group ranked their interest at a 4.21 on a 7-point scale. The “normal room” said 3.29. The offer then was posed to both groups of giving money versus time: 22% of the folks under the influence of window cleaning agent said yes, while only 6% of the regular smell folks agreed to donate funds.

What are we to learn from this? (I thought it was a cool study, and so was eager to learn.)

This is where the scientist and I parted logic.

Lijenquist reportedly said, when asked what the application of her work might be: “Companies often employ heavy-handed interventions to regulate conduct, but they can be costly or oppressive. This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior.”

Before you grab a bottle of citrus-scented Windex, stop and think about what she said. We OFTEN are heavy handed? Who wet her Wheaties? What lead to that hypothesis?

Perhaps time will prove that Lijenquist and her team added a gem to the study of human behavior, but she was naive in applying her research so quickly and quirkily to the business arena. (My further private assertion is that she has the government and the private sector confused, but that’s a personal aside.)

Actually — this may be where I need an intermediary interpreter like John Wiley — I don’t even know what she meant by the remark. It sounds academically persuasive but what the heck is she talking about? The cost of creating an employee manual?

After questioning her motives, I began to question her methods….

Were her subjects college students or employees of a private enterprise?

The fodder (subject) for many college experiments is a college student answering a posting to participate in a study (sometimes for a fee). I postulate that $12 means a heck of a lot more to a college student than the average full-time employee. Be honest now — when you were in college, would you have returned less than you would today?

If I’m right, college professors should clean their classroom windows prior to final exams. That’s what the study more likely reveals. Cheating then should go down.

Were the experiments done at exactly the same time and on the same date?

If the subjects didn’t detect a subliminal scent, might the researchers have overlooked other subliminal factors like sunlight and the most recent national news item between the two groups? I postulate that headlines like “Mother Kills Kids in a Car” versus “
Little Girl Trapped in a Well” affects community/group altruism day to day. Was one group asked to build a house in the morning, while still energized, versus a group queried at the end of the day? Inquiring minds want to know.

Even if I believed the findings were indeed totally controlled and offered great proof of the connection between our senses and our morality — and if I admitted that I am as interested in the results as the next layman — there are other conclusions that make more sense than whatever it was she was trying to suggest to business leaders.

  • Babysitters: Wash down the kitchen counters just before the parents come home, thereby inclining them to pay you more.
  • Employees: Ask for a raise the day following janitorial service. Prepare with a citrus-smelling bath gel and wear clean-smelling clothes.
  • Nonprofit fundraisers: Dab a little eau de parfum de Windex behind each ear before doing a donor ask.

Sound ridiculous? Okay, my theories (made up just now) are as lame as hers. I didn’t take the time to think through my answer that I would if I was expecting to be asked by national reporters how my scientific study might benefit mankind — a common question, by the way.

P.S.: Are window-washers more generous than sewage plant workers? Give me some grant money or budget appropriation and I’ll get back to you with real-world results.

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