By Steven G. Mehta

It always fascinates me how the small things can make subtle differences in the way we make decisions.  I always think about these issues and how negotiators will make decisions.  One metaphor I recently thought about was the one of washing hands — I am washing my hands of it — That metaphor suggests that once you have washed your hands you will no longer worry about the matter.  Recently I came upon a study that shows a very interesting connection between washing hands and decision making.

Here are a few excerpts of an interview regarding the research:

MR. LEE:  Essentially people are focusing on the positive features of the chosen option and the relatively negative features of the rejected option. And as a consequence, they come to like the chosen option even more after they make the choice, compared to before they make the choice. This is called choice justification.

What our studies showed was that when people are not given a chance to wash their hands, they show this classic pattern, you know, as found in hundreds of previous studies. But once you give them a chance to wash their hands, they no longer have any choice justification tendency. They do not feel the need to say to themselves: I made a right choice.

FLATOW: Right, and you found that the act of washing your hands affects your choice. Does it make you rethink – or is it the act of just standing there, does it make you think about things, or does it make you focus on something else totally, like washing your hands, and that may affect your choice?

Mr. LEE: Right. It’s a very interesting thought. I think that it not only distracts you a little bit, I think that it does have this feeling of removing past concerns, and it allows you to sort of move on, and the reason is metaphorical connection.

Now, think back about the washing-away-your-sins metaphor. Psychologically what seems to be happening is that the physical experience of removing germs or dirt or contaminants on your hand is used to provide a basis for an abstract kind of experience, removing residues from your past immoral behaviors. So that’s in the case of morality.

Now, in the case of choice, it seems that when people are washing away things, physically washing away things off their hands, they’re also abstractly washing away mental residues from their past decisions. So I think that that is what’s going on, and that’s why it has the power of freeing people from concerns about past decisions.

FLATOW: So you’re saying it is the actual, the water that’s important here. So if you were distracted by playing with a Rubik Cube or chopping vegetables for dinner that night, you would not expect the same reaction, the same…

Mr. LEE: We would not expect the same reaction. You’re absolutely right. And in fact, in the honor group that did not wash their hands, in some ways they were distracted because they were looking at a bottle of hand soap, evaluating the, you know, how attractive they found the bottle of hand soap and so forth. So they were distracted by other thoughts.

FLATOW: So are you saying that this morality factor, is that built into us, washing our hands of something, or is it something that we learn and we pick up as we get older?

Mr. LEE: I think that there’s – chances are that people learn it, because the human mind works like this. There are thoughts that are intangible, they are very difficult to grasp. Morality is a complex phenomenon, and it seems that in the past few years there’s been increasing research suggesting that for complex ideas, abstract thoughts like these, we rely on the physical experience to help us make sense of them.

FLATOW: So don’t wash your hands.

Mr. LEE: It depends on the goal, though, because if all of a sudden our goal changes to a short-term goal of having a fair assessment of different options available on your table, then remember the original pattern of choice justification is that you focus on the positive features of the chosen option and the relatively negative features of the rejected option.

In other words, you have a more biased view of these available options. Washing your hands allows you to have a more accurate, fair assessment of these options. So if that’s the goal, washing your hands would do you a favor.

FLATOW: So if you’re not sure about your decision, and you want to rethink it, then you should go wash your hands.

Mr. LEE: I think so, to the extent that you have not committed yourself to a certain choice, because choice justification kicks in when you feel that you have committed yourself to certain, to one option already. Just like, you know, I’m going to buy this car now, and you start thinking to yourself, oh yeah, this car really is more attractive and the power and efficiency and so forth, right. But if you haven’t made that decision yet, I don’t think that choice justification, the mental work, has started occurring.

Too see the full interview, click on NPR here.

This research has some interesting consequences on mediation and negotiation research.  What if you had a person who was having buyer’s remorse after signing papers for a deal.  Part of the negotiation process is making sure that the client doesn’t second guess the decision and try to break the deal later.   How would washing hands work in that context?

As noted by the author, perhaps you might avoid washing hands when the decision is solid in the person’s mind, but try to encourage it when the decision isn’t.

I have also used other physical acts such as packing away written materials into an envelope and sealing it as a small way of trying to get people to have closure.  Perhaps there may be other ways also.