Reception honoring Department graduates and their families. Will begin at end of graduation ceremonies
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It is fairly common for people to find themselves in a situation where they have to make a decision between two alternatives that are more or less equally attractive. Sometimes this decision may be about relatively minor things such as which movie to stream tonight. At other times the decision may have important long-term consequences such as having to decide between two attractive job offers.
When making a decision between roughly equally attractive alternatives people often experience a condition social psychologist have called post-decisional dissonance after the decision is made. Choosing one attractive alternative means rejecting the other attractive alternative. This puts a person in the position of rejecting something they have a positive attitude about. The inconsistency involved with choosing to reject something you would like to have produces a type of anxiety known as dissonance.
One way for a person to reduce or eliminate dissonance is to change their attitude about the alternative they rejected. Before they made the decision, they focused on positive aspects and had a positive attitude about each of the alternatives. After the decision is made, focusing on the negative aspects of the rejected alternative makes that alternative seem less appealing. This reduces the dissonance or anxiety which was aroused by rejecting something good. Social psychologists proposed that reducing dissonance in this way is a factor in explaining how people’s attitudes change.
An intriguing finding with regard to this type of dissonance effect is that physically washing one’s hands after making a decision that would normally produce post-decisional dissonance eliminates the effect. Elimination of post-decisional dissonance by physically washing one’s hands has been called the clean slate effect.
In a typical experimental paradigm that is designed to examine clean slate effects participants are divided into two groups. Both groups evaluate a set of objects by rank-ordering the objects from the one they would most like to own to the one they would least like to own. They are then asked to choose which of two of the objects from the middle of their list they would like to have as a token of appreciation for having participated in the experiment. Following this the participants are asked to engage in a product evaluation regarding hand cleaning products such as liquid soaps or sanitary wipes. One of the groups examines the product packaging; the other group uses the product to wash their hands. After this, both groups are asked to reevaluate the initial set of objects by rank ordering them again. A clean slate effect is found when the group that examined the product packaging but did not actually wash their hands ranks the object they rejected much lower than they originally did (they may also give a higher rank to the object they chose) while the group that washed their hands gives the objects the same rank ordering they did the first time around.
The explanation that is typically given for this finding is that the people who did not wash their hands experienced post-decisional dissonance and changed their evaluation of the objects they rejected or chose to reduce this dissonance. The people who washed their hands reduced or eliminated post decisional dissonance and therefore had no reason to change their evaluations of the products.
Dr. Andres De Los Reyes and his colleagues asked whether clean slate effects are present for people who typically have difficulty making decisions. Many people who express anxiety symptoms have a difficult time making decisions even when the decision is about relatively inconsequential things such as which movie to stream. Making a decision becomes even more difficult when the possible outcome of the decision involves uncertainty such as deciding between having dinner at one of two restaurants that you have never been to before as opposed to deciding between two familiar restaurants. In addition, when they try to make decisions people with anxiety symptoms may become caught in a loop where they find themselves going over and over some part of the decision process without coming to a clear resolution.
Dr. De Los Reyes and his colleagues compared a group of participants that had difficulty making decisions with a group that did not using a standard clean slate experimental procedure. As expected from previous research, both groups gave evidence of experiencing post-decisional dissonance when they did not physically wash their hands. However, when they washed their hands, a clean slate effect only occurred for the group that did not have difficulty making decisions. The participants who typically had difficulty making decisions continued to provide evidence of experiencing post decisional dissonance after having physically washed their hands.
If people with anxiety symptoms had produced clean slate effects, the simple act of washing one’s hands after making a decision might have been a valuable therapeutic technique for controlling increased levels of anxiety. Unfortunately, this is not how the research study turned out. However, as Dr. De Los Reyes and his colleagues point out, the failure to produce clean slate effects may have value as a diagnostic tool as a way to identify people who are suffering increased levels of anxiety.