The pivot point of today’s reflection is going to be squeaky clean hair (point 1) and “you can tell it’s working by the tingle” toothpaste (point 2). After that, all bets are off but this might be the time to admit that I am feeling just a little snarky as I write this.
I remember hearing about “squeaky clean” hair from the time I was old enough to see ads in magazines. All the derivative kinds of “squeaky clean”—politicians, Mormons (I know those are overlapping categories this year), boy scouts, librarians, etc.—are built on the metaphor of the hair. This is what I remember.
Then I ran across this. “In reality, that squeak is a cry for help: hair that squeaks signifies bad clean; it can mean that it has been over-cleaned, stripped of natural oils, and just plain damaged.” Or, the way I heard it first, “That ‘squeak’ is your hair screaming for the oils you just stole from it.”
So hair is “squeaking.” Or it is “screaming?” Not quite the same. The squeaking/screaming distinction has been dear to the makers of “mild shampoos,” which “do not wash the good out with the bad,” and to makers of conditioners, which restore the good after you have stripped it out. The great thing about strong shampoos is that you pay to strip all the natural oils out and then you need to pay for a conditioner to put them all back in.
Then I ran into this in Charlie Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Unlike other toothpastes of that period, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals that at the time were relatively exotic in consumer goods. Pepsodent’s inventor had used those ingredients to make his toothpaste taste minty and to make sure the paste wouldn’t become gluey as it sat on the shelves. But those chemicals had another, unanticipated effect as well: They’re irritants that create a tingling sensation on the tongue and gums.
It’s clear from this account that the mint oil and the citric acid do nothing at all to clean your teeth. What they do is irritate your tongue and gums. Is this irritation a good thing? Is it something you would pay extra money for? Yes, it is, it turns out, because the irritation is called “tingling” and the tingling has a meaning—it means your teeth are clean. In fact, people soon came to feel that the tingling—the indicator light—meant that the teeth were clean and that your teeth were not clean unless you felt the tingling.
Here’s Duhigg again.
When researchers at competing companies started interviewing customers, they found that people said that if they forgot to use Pepsodent, they realized their mistake because they missed that cool, tingling sensation in their mouths. They expected—they craved—that slight irritation. If it wasn’t there, their mouths didn’t feel clean.
I don’t care one way or the other about the toothpaste, actually, but I am fascinated by how powerful this indicator light is. Remember that the citric acid and the mint oil don’t do anything for your teeth and nothing valuable for your tongue and your gums. Their only function is to give you a sensation, the meaning of which was marketed just like the toothpaste. The meaning is that the toothpaste is still working; your teeth are still clean. And, of course, just as important: without that assurance that your teeth are clean, they aren’t really “clean.” The product (the toothpaste) and the irritant (the oils and acids) and the assurance of meaning all come in the same package and the fact that only the second two are related to each other at all doesn’t seem to matter.
So let’s give up on the toothpaste and get to something really important. Let’s talk about “doing the right thing.” What we need, clearly, is an indicator light—like the irritation—which tells you that you did the right thing. For the purposes of this reflection, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what “the right thing” is. Irritation already means clean teeth, so how about warmth?
When you do the right thing, your body temperature goes up two degrees and your cheeks “burn” (as we say). That burn is the indicator light. When your cheeks burn, you know you are doing the right thing. You could call it “an inner warmth” if you wanted. Now this is not a neutral indicator, like thumbs up or down from the judges. No, this is ardently desired. When you don’t have this inner warmth, how do you really know you did the right thing? It is the inner warmth that tells you that you did the right thing. If you don’t have that warmth, maybe you didn’t do the right thing.
Notice that the value, the “goodness” of the action, is now the same thing as the indicator. It isn’t that you know you did something wrong when the inner warmth isn’t there. There isn’t an “inner coldness” that shows up when you have done something wrong. It’s that you don’t KNOW you did something right without the inner warmth. You find yourself putting your hand on your cheek now and then, just to make sure it is still warmer than it would be “naturally.”
Now that would work. Back in the old days, you had to do an action out of a pure or benevolent motive or it had to have beneficial effects on people. There are rewards there, certainly, but not enough to maintain them consistently. What we need is the inner warmth as an indicator. That’s how you know for sure. Keeping that inner warmth going is ardently to be desired, not, you will recall, because there is anything good about it, but because it is the constant presence of an indicator of virtue.
It’s great. It’s just like the teeth. The inner warmth doesn’t have to do anything for your soul, just as the irritation doesn’t have to do anything for your teeth. The irritation tells you “it’s working.” The warmth tells you “you done good.”
Inner warmth. “Don’t leave home without it.” Or, “Are you really sure you did the right thing?”