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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.

 

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December 21st, 2010

Wash That Decision Right Outta Your Hair

 
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Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a tough situation, I’ll delay taking a shower — so that when it’s resolved, I can shower and wash it all away. After a trying time, I’m more likely to open a fresh bottle of shampoo or a new razor. And I never really gave a lot of thought to why, except that it was a way of making a fresh start, a psychological reminder that I can be cleansed and move on.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my quirkiness — but I should probably take that shower or wash my hands before making tough decisions, not afterward.

According to a study published recently in Science, the simple act of washing your hands can ease your mind — and help you second-guess your choices less.

Says study author Spike Lee, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in an interview with NPR washing your hands

not only distracts you a little bit, I think that it does have this feeling of removing past concerns, and it allows you to sort of move on, and the reason is metaphorical connection.

Now, think back about the washing-away-your-sins metaphor. Psychologically what seems to be happening is that the physical experience of removing germs or dirt or contaminants on your hand is used to provide a basis for an abstract kind of experience, removing residues from your past immoral behaviors. So that’s in a case of morality.

Now, in the case of choice, it seems that when people are washing away things, physically washing away things off their hands, they’re also abstractly washing away mental residues from their past decisions. So I think that that is what’s going on, and that’s why it has the power of freeing people from concerns about past decisions.

So when Nellie Forbush in South Pacific sings “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,” she’s actually on to something. (It’s so perfect: Watch this video and see decision-making and an attempt at freeing herself from her decision.) Fascinating.

 
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The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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