SPIKE LEE how the physical environment affects our thinking
THE HUMAN MIND is highly adaptive, constantly adjusting itself to situational demands. Situations that tap into our motives are particularly effective at getting the mind going. For example, if your selfesteem or moral standing is threatened, a host of mental mechanisms kick in to defend your sense of competence and integrity.
A growing body of research examines the surprising power of subtle physical states to shift the mental processes underlying our ‘motivated cognition’. Motivated cognition refers to the influence of our motives on various types of thought processes, such as memory, information processing, reasoning, judgment and decision making — all of which have significant effects on people in the workplace.
In this article I will summarize four themes from my recent research in an effort to help leaders understand that mental processes are not devoid of physical influence.
1. Flexibility in Goal Pursuit
Not surprisingly, people who are skilled at adapting their goals to life’s changing circumstances tend to live happier lives. Flexibility in goal pursuit, however, is anything but easy. Sometimes, people have multiple goals that are hard to prioritize (e.g., obtaining tenure vs. spending time with family), forcing them to switch back and forth (e.g., working on papers vs. taking the kids out). Other times, people pursue a single focal goal but get derailed by issues of all kinds, from last-minute meetings to unexpected health problems. And other times, people’s goals are unattainable, but they are unable to disengage from them — especially if they are the tenacious type.
Proactively adjusting your goals encompasses diverse psychological capacities, including withdrawing effort and commitment from unattainable goals and identifying and re-engaging with more attainable or ‘priority-deserving’ alternatives. Research, however, has offered little help in terms
of practical strategies to enhance this important ability.
My collaborator, Kellogg Professor Ping Dong and I took up this challenge in a recent paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. In it, we theorize that the tactile experience of physical cleansing might help to reorient an individual’s goal pursuit.
In its most basic sense, ‘physical cleansing’ involves separating traces of a substance from a target object, where that separation is physically realized (i.e., detached, removed); where traces are physical (i.e., dirt, grease); and where the target object is physical (i.e., a body, a table). We proposed that such a basic physical experience can serve as the basis for higher mental processes—especially when they share similar properties.
‘Psychological cleansing’ shares similar properties, insofar as it involves separating traces from a target object, whereby that separation is psychologically realized (by dissociating or diminishing), traces are from psychological experience (e.g., sinning, choosing), and the target object is psychological (e.g., self, other).
We felt that by invoking the same underlying relational structure of ‘separation’, physical cleansing could produce the effects of psychological cleansing. Across four experiments, we found evidence that a simple act of physical cleansing can diminish or amplify the effects of activated goals: Cleaning one’s hands with an antiseptic wipe — under the pretense of ‘product evaluation’ — was found to diminish the mental accessibility, behavioural expression, and judged importance of a previously-activated goal. It also amplified the judged importance of a subsequently-activated goal.
An alternative manipulation that produced psychological separation also affected the relative importance of previously and subsequently activated goals — but the effects disappeared once people wiped their hands clean, suggesting that cleansing did serve the function of psychological separation.
This pattern of results emerged across a variety of goal settings, reinforcing our view that cleansing functions as a domain-general procedure of psychological separation. Put simply, daily acts of cleansing — mundane as they seem — may generally enhance our ability to pursue our goals in a flexible manner.
2. Dissonance in Decision Making
Alongside goal pursuit, decision making is another key skill required of today’s employees. Classic research shows that after people make a free choice between similarly-attractive options (e.g., launching one business plan vs. another, merging two firms vs. not), they often experience ‘post-decisional dissonance’ (‘Did I make the right decision?’).
Such dissonance is unpleasant and motivates people to justify their choice by developing a stronger preference for the chosen option over the rejected option. The resulting post-decisional bias is termed the ‘spreading of alternatives’. To the extent that this bias results from lingering concerns about one’s recent decision, my collaborator Norbert Schwarz and I wondered if physical cleansing might reduce the classic spreading-of-alternatives effect — again, because cleansing could function as a psychological procedure capable of separating a past experience (e.g., decision making) from the present.
We tested this hypothesis by conducting a pair of experiments in the context of consumer choice, for a paper published in Science. As predicted, after choosing between two similarly-attractive music albums, people tended to rank the chosen album as ‘better’ than the rejected one — but this tendency was completely eliminated once they had used (vs. examined) a bottle of hand soap. Likewise, after choosing
Risk assessment is often driven by momentary feelings— even if they are entirely incidental to the risk at hand.
between two fruit jams, people tended to expect the chosen jam to taste better than the rejected jam, but this tendency was also eliminated once they used (vs. examined) an antiseptic wipe. Our results suggest that people can ‘wipe off’ the classic bias of post-decisional dissonance.
3. Economic Exchange and Error Detection
Beyond the tactile realm, my collaborators and I have explored how olfactory cues alter motivated cognition. Smells are not only potent memory triggers, they also convey rich social meanings. For example, a linguistic analysis of metaphorical expressions in 18 languages found that in every language studied, ‘social suspicion’ is metaphorically indicated by a bad smell. This smell–suspicion link appears to be universal, but with culture-specific differences.
Stimulated by these observations, we conducted two behavioural experiments, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, among English speakers in the U.S. to investigate whether a ‘fishy’ smell would elicit social suspicion and thus undermine trust-based economic activity.
We found that if people were exposed to a subtle amount of the fishy smell (vs. a non-fishy bad smell, or a neutral smell) while deciding ‘how much money to invest’, they tended to invest less money in a trust game, presumably because the bad smell elicited concerns about others’ reciprocity. Extended replications among English speakers in Australia found the same pattern of results and further showed that the suspicion-eliciting effect of the fishy smell was sufficient to override pre-existing individual differences in trust.
Is it a good thing or a bad thing that a bad smell can reduce trust-based economic behaviour? It depends. High levels of trust are generally conducive to organizational strength and economic growth. But in contexts where malicious intent is harboured by many, low levels of trust may be the adaptive default, insofar as distrust motivates cognitive vigilance.
For example, incidental exposure to a fishy smell has been shown to enhance people’s likelihood of detecting misleading claims and overcoming their confirmation bias in logical reasoning, which are clearly important intellectual abilities to cultivate. A precise understanding of which smells are capable of setting off which mental processes (other than suspicion and vigilance) would be immensely useful.
4. Risk Perception and Policy Preference
Feelings elicited by perceiving the risk posed by one hazard can spill over to heighten perception of the risk posed by other, unrelated hazards. Accordingly, even a minor event in daily life — if it conjures up images of recent threats associated with strong feelings — could bias risk perception in multiple domains.
My colleagues and I conducted a test of this hypothesis in 2009, in the midst of the swine-flu pandemic, which had spread from initial cases in Mexico to over 70 countries and all 50 states of the U.S., resulting in 30,000 documented cases with 145 deaths worldwide within two months. Extensive media coverage highlighted contagion risks and offered hygiene recommendations, from frequent hand washing to wearing face masks and avoiding physical contact.
To cue ‘the threat of contagion,’ we conducted two experiments, published in Psychological Science, by arranging for participants to encounter a sneezing person before answering questions about perceived risks. If students in public areas of campus buildings had walked past an individual who was (vs. was not) sneezing and coughing, then when later approached by a different experimenter to complete a questionnaire, they perceived higher risks of not only contracting a serious disease, but also of unrelated threats such as having a heart attack before age 50 and dying from a crime or accident. They also evaluated the U.S. healthcare system to be more in need of revamping and rebuilding.
Likewise, if pedestrians in shopping malls and downtown business areas were approached by an experimenter who was coughing and sneezing while administering the questionnaire, they shifted their policy preference from investing $1.3 billion from the federal budget on ‘the creation of green jobs’ to investing it on ‘vaccine development’. Apparently, the policy implications of even brief exposure to disease cues are nothing to sneeze at.
As illustrated herein, sensory cues related to cleanliness can help people separate the past from the present, enhance their flexibility in goal pursuit, reduce their motivated bias from post-decisional dissonance and effect trust-based economic behaviour.
These findings make it clear that our mental processes are not devoid of bodily influence. If any theory of the mind is to offer practical advice on structuring physical environments that promote productivity and innovation, it must attend to what happens outside of the head, as well as within it. Rotman faculty research is ranked #3 globally by the Financial Times. Spike W. S. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Rotman School of Management.