Windex and Compliance

Katie Liljenquist

People are more fair and more generous when they are in clean-smelling environments, according to a soon-to-be published study: The Smell of Virtue.

The experiment had participants engage in several tasks, the only difference being that some worked in unscented rooms, while others worked in rooms freshly spritzed with citrus-scented Windex.

The first experiment was a test of whether clean scents would enhance reciprocity. Participants received $12 of real money. They had to decide how much of it to either keep or return to their partners who had trusted them to divide it fairly. Subjects in clean-scented rooms returned a significantly higher share of the money. The average amount of cash given back by the participants in the unscented room was $2.81. But the participants in the Windex room gave back an average of $5.33.

The second experiment evaluated whether scents would encourage charitable behavior. Test participants indicated their interest in volunteering with a campus organization for a Habitat for Humanity service project and their interest in donating funds to the cause. Participants surveyed in a Windex room were significantly more interested in volunteering (4.21 on a 7-point scale) than those in a normal room (3.29). In the Windex room, 22% participants said they’d like to donate money, compared to only 6% of those in a unscented room.

Follow-up questions confirmed that participants didn’t notice the scent in the room.

The results are consistent with the “broken windows” theory of crime that argues disrepair in the environment promotes lawless behavior.

Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at BYU’s Marriott School of Management, is the lead author on the piece in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, with co-authors are Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.


Thanks to Mary Abraham of Above and Beyond KM for pointing out this study.

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2 Responses to Windex and Compliance

  1. VMaryAbraham October 29, 2009 at 8:07 am #

    Doug –

    I thought you might find this interesting! If our ethical behavior can be influenced by smell, I wonder what sensory cues (if any) affect a person’s receptivity to knowledge management?

    – Mary

  2. Jeff Kaplan October 30, 2009 at 5:23 am #


    For those interested more broadly in the issue of how the seemingly irrational can impact ethical decision making, Anthony Appiah’s Experiments in Ethics (Harvard 2008) is a good place to start.

    Also, the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association has recently formed a research working group to study the potential implications of this knowledge for ethics and compliance programs. The group will publish a white paper in 2010 on it findings.