Chapter 9 of Bridges to Consensus gives many reasons to take a think break before responding to a difficult statement or committing to an agreement. An article in the August 2011 issue of Psychology Today inspired me to reflect on another reason: our inclinations can be skewed by factors that seem completely unrelated to the issues we are deciding.

As some of you know, I often refer to Influence—the Psychology of Persuasion[1] and similar books for examples of ways “compliance professionals” influence us without our knowledge. Our decisions seem rational, but marketers, ideologues, and other savvy professionals can trigger our acceptance of their products or positions by, for example, first getting us to make a very small, and seemingly harmless, concession or by having the spokesperson for their agenda where a symbol of authority, such as a doctor’s white coat or a judge’s black robe.

Many skeptics claim these tricks wouldn’t work on them, but the data from test studies tell a different story about the majority of us. Not all those skeptics could possibly be the rare exceptions to the rules.

The Psychology Today article “Virtuous Reality,” summarizes several experiments indicating that even our moral judgment can be affected by sensory environmental factors. In one study, subjects who used an antiseptic wipe to clean their hands before judging controversial social issues, like pornography and recreational drug use, were more likely to deem them immoral.

However, hand cleanliness is not the only such trigger. In another study, those who sat near a garbage can that had been treated with an offensive odor were also more likely to judge things as immoral.

It is also possible to make someone’s moral judgment more lenient. Test subjects who sat in a dimly lit room or who wore sunglasses were more likely to cheat on a test or to behave more selfishly when playing a cooperative game.

So it seems that we can benefit from a think break and a change of environment not only when deciding about the subject matter of a prospective consensus, but also before judging the other party to the transaction as moral or immoral, trustworthy or sleazy.

When rethinking your initial inclination, try to do so in a neutral environment. Turn off the music and try to exclude other sounds. Adjust the lighting so that it is neither too bright nor too dim. Exclude both pleasant and unpleasant odors. Avoid distracting tactile sensations on your skin.

You might also find it interesting to make notes on deferred decisions. First note your initial inclination. Then, in your sensually neutral environment, reconsider the matter and note your current inclination. If the two differ, close your eyes and take yourself back to the environment of your initial inclination. What were the sights, sounds, tactile sensations and smells in that time and place? If you were eating or had just eaten or drunk something, how did it taste? Are your feelings about those sensory perceptions positive or negative? Could your initial inclination correspond in some way to those positive or negative feelings?

I plan to try this and report on the results in a future blog post, and I’d love to hear your results if you try this too.


[1] Robert Cialdini (Quill, William Morrow, 1995).