How bad smells, hand sanitizer, and Israeli judges affect your evaluation of an event

by Adrian Segar

In his remarkable book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes a strong case that “an obsession with righteousness is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design…” Although the book is primarily a fascinating exploration of the origins and workings of morality, along the way Haidt describes many interesting aspects of how humans actually behave that are often at odds with how we think we act. Here’s an example that has direct relevance to your attendees’ evaluations of your events.

Some bizarre and unsettling experimental findings
Haidt describes a number of experiments where people were asked to make moral judgments about controversial issues. In one, unbeknownst to the experimental subjects, half were exposed to what I’ll describe as foul air while they were giving their judgments. (Read the book for the smelly details.) The result? The people who breathed in foul air made harsher judgments than those who did not. Another experiment had people fill out surveys about their political attitudes while standing near or far from a hand sanitizer dispenser. Those who stood near the dispenser became temporarily more conservative in their expressed attitudes. A final example (not from the book) is the somewhat alarming discovery from research in Israeli courts that a prisoner’s chance of parole depends on when the judge hearing the case last took a break.

What do these findings mean for your events? 
What these experiments reveal is that our bodily experiences affect our simultaneous judgment of apparently unrelated issues. Our bodies guide our judgments. As Haidt explains: “When we’re trying to decide what we think about something, we look inward, at how we’re feeling. If I’m feeling good, I must like it, and if I’m feeling anything unpleasant, that must mean I don’t like it.”

What this all implies is that if we want to get unbiased evaluations of our events, we need to obtain them in neutral surroundings. Detaining an attendee who prides herself on fairness “for a quick video testimonial” in a featureless, smelly corridor when she badly needs a rest room will result in a less favorable response than if she is interviewed when she’s comfortable. Asking attendees to fill out online evaluations on the Monday they return to work with a backlog of while-you-were-out requests pending guarantees less charitable responses. (Offering a meaningful immediate incentive to those who take the time to fill out the survey might help to redress such negative feelings.)

And if we want to bias attendee evaluations in a positive direction? Well, I think I’ve given you the background to figure out how that might work. Not that you’d ever do such a thing. Would you?

Composite image credits: Flickr users michaelbycroftphotography, nedrai, and safari_vacation

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  • Mitchell Beer

    Wow! Adrian, this is certainly about how participants evaluate events, but just as much about how they react to and make use of the knowledge they pick up onsite. It’s great (and, as you say, scary) background and substantiation for all the material we’ve seen recently on everything from aesthetics onsite to the technical quality of a virtual or hybrid experience.

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      You’re right, Mitchell. According to this research if we provide substandard, uncomfortable environments at our events, this will negatively affect participants’ evaluations of the content, the quality of the speakers, and the connections they make, etc. Worth bearing in mind!

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