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Wash your hands, wash away doubt

Kavita Varma-White writes:

Oh, the tough decisions we face each day. Work or stay home with a sick child? Paper or plastic? Raspberry or peach jam?


In the grand scheme of moral dilemmas, you’d think jam would rank somewhere below, say, choosing whether to drill or protect the environment. 

But it’s one of the confounding choices researchers gave college students in a study exploring “cognitive dissonance,” the uncomfortable feeling we get when we hold two opposing ideas in our minds, or regret a decision we've made.

In the way that a religious baptism symbolically gives us a moral clean slate, University of Michigan professors Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz discovered that washing our hands after making a choice actually helps us alleviate the discomfort of accepting the decision.

As part of the study, a group of college students had to choose one of two different fruit jams, and then rated how they expected both jams to taste. Those who washed their hands after choosing expected both jams to taste roughly the same, while those who didn't wash hands expected the jam they chose to taste much better than the other one. The research suggests that had this group washed their hands, they would not have needed to rationalize their initial choice by saying it was better than the other one. 

In another experiment, researchers had the students rank 10 CDs and then chose one to take home. They found the same result as with the jam: those who didn’t wash their hands seemed to feel they needed to justify the way they ranked them.

While decisions about CDs and jams are admittedly lightweight, Schwarz said there was no need to expose research participants to dramatic, emotionally charged decisions that could have upset them, given that previous research has shown that small decisions are sufficient to induce dissonance.

The research is important, Schwarz says, because it illustrates that metaphors have a powerful effect on human thinking.

"We often talk about a 'clean slate' or 'washing one's hands of something,' and it seems that hand-washing can indeed wipe one's slate clean," Schwarz said.

So the next time you want a clean conscience after making a simple decision, head to the nearest sink and wash away the second-guessing.