SPIKE LEE how the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment af­fects our think­ing

Rotman Management Magazine - - FROM THE EDITOR -

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.

In clos­ing

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.

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