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

evaluation of an eventIn 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 that asked people to make moral judgments about controversial issues. In one, 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 does this all imply? If we want to get unbiased evaluations of our events, we need to obtain them in neutral surroundings. Ask an attendee who prides herself on fairness “for a quick video testimonial” in a featureless, smelly corridor when she badly needs a rest room? You’ll get a less favorable response than if you interview her when she’s comfortable. Ask attendees to fill out online evaluations on the Monday they return to work with a backlog of while-you-were-out requests pending? Their evaluations will be negatively biased. Offer a meaningful immediate incentive to those who take the time to fill out the survey? You’ll reduce the bias.

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