By Carmen Nobel

For many of us, the idea of professional networking conjures unctuous thoughts of pressing the flesh with potential employers, laughing at unfunny jokes, and pretending to enjoy ourselves.
No wonder a recent study found that professional networking makes people feel unclean, so much so that they subconsciously crave cleansing products. The study, titled The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties: How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty, appeared in the December 2014 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.

“Even when people know networking is beneficial to their careers, they often don't do it”

"Even when people know networking is beneficial to their careers, they often don't do it," says Francesca Gino, a professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit at Harvard Business School, who coauthored the study with Tiziana Casciaro (Rotman School, University of Toronto) and Maryam Kouchaki (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.) "From an academic perspective, we thought we could advance the theory of networks by looking at the psychological consequences of networking."
Previous psychology research has shown that people think about morality in terms of cleanliness. A 2006 study found that people felt physically dirtier after recalling past transgressions than after recalling good deeds. The study's authors called it the "Macbeth effect," referring to the Shakespearean scene in which a guilt-racked Lady Macbeth tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands.

Based on their personal schmoozing experiences, Casciaro, Gino, and Kouchaki hypothesized that professional networking increases feelings of inauthenticity and immorality—and therefore feelings of dirtiness—much more so than networking to make friends. (Gino, for instance, recalled colleagues using copious amounts of complimentary hand sanitizer after work-related dinners.)
The team also posited that networking felt ickier when a meeting was planned ahead of time, rather than a spontaneous occurrence. "Oftentimes there is a deliberate attempt to create a link with another person, which is a very proactive behavior," Gino says. "But other times you and another person just happen to be at the same event, and you end up talking to each other and networking. We thought the difference was important because one has more intent than the other—and that intent might contribute to feelings of being selfish."


The researchers conducted a series of experimental and field studies to test the extent to which networking makes people feel dirty.

In the first experiment, 306 participants were asked to recall an event from the past and write about it for five minutes. They were divided into four conditions. In the first condition, participants recalled a time where they intentionally set out to nurture a relationship for professional gain. In the second, they recalled a time when a spontaneous meeting had benefited them professionally. The third and fourth conditions were similar to the first two, but participants were focused on personal gain instead.

Afterward, all the participants were asked to complete a series of word fragments, including SH_ _ER, W_ _ H, and S_ _P. The researchers found that those who had recalled intentional networking were nearly twice as likely to come up with "cleansing" words—"shower," "wash," and "soap"—than those who had recalled spontaneous meetings. (Participants in the spontaneous condition were more likely to create non-cleansing words like "shaker," "with," and "ship.") Moreover, participants in the intentional professional networking scenario tended toward cleansing words more than those in the intentional personal networking scenario.
In the second experiment, held in a university research laboratory, 85 students read one of two short stories. Both were written in the second person. In one, the protagonist ("you") went to a holiday party with hopes of having fun and making friends; in the other, the protagonist attended a company party solely to make business connections. Afterward, the researchers asked participants to read through a list of consumer products and rate each one on a desirability scale of one to seven. The list included several specific cleansing items (such as Dove shower soap, Crest toothpaste, Windex) as well as neutral items (like Post-it Notes, Nantucket Nectars juice, Sony CD cases).

On average, participants who read the professional networking story gave much higher ratings to the cleansing products than those who imagined the friendly party. The neutral products received similar ratings across the board.