We often hear about psychological studies which purport to show that physical circumstances affect people’s judgment. For example, in one study people were given either hot coffee or iced coffee to hold, then they read a packet of information about a fictitious person. When asked whether the fictitious person was friendly or not, subjects in the experiment who had held hot coffee were more likely to say the person was warm and friendly, versus those who held iced coffee and thought the person was cold and unfriendly.
There are hundreds of such studies, all used to “show” how human judgment is just terrible, because it’s easily influenced by irrelevant factors.
I have a different interpretation. Some people’s judgment is terrible, because they don’t take control of the judgment process to make sure they are activating the most relevant information for the judgment.
When you make an up/down judgment (good or bad, friendly or unfriendly, right or wrong), you are asking your subconscious to tote up what it knows, and give you an overall assessment. But here’s the catch: it will only tote up information that is currently activated. Information that is out of mind will not be included in the tally.
So, for example, imagine that you are supposed to be doing your taxes, but you find yourself organizing a closet instead. If you ask yourself, “should I do this or the taxes?” you are almost guaranteed to get some answer like, “oh, I might as well just finish up with the closet.” Since the closet is front and center in your mind, it’s the context that’s activated. Taxes seem far away and not particularly pressing.
It takes a deliberate process to activate the wider context needed for a fair judgment. In the closet case, you need to stop what you’re doing for a few minutes to write out a pros and cons list (or the equivalent). That gives you time to activate the tax context and take a serious look at the issue. You may decide to finish up the closet first anyway, but if so, that decision will be based on toting up information from both sides of the issue.
A similar process occurs in the case of the hot or cold coffee and its purported influence on a person’s judgment. Our subconscious databanks work by association. Warm things are associated with friendly things, cold with unfriendly. This could be one of the random (or not so random) external factors that affects your mood and what occurs to you on the spur of the moment.
But when you make a judgment, what occurs to you randomly should not be the issue. The issue is, when asked to make a judgment, do you stop to assemble what you know is relevant?
In the study, I expect some of the people used an active logical process to evaluate the person, and others passively went by whatever thoughts and feelings occurred to them by default. If so, there actually could be a statistically significant effect from the coffee temperature — on those who passively accepted whatever thoughts and feelings occurred to them by default.
Moreover, if the packet of information about the fictitious person gave evenly balanced evidence for and against friendliness, and yet participants were forced to choose “friendly or unfriendly,” there would be nothing to base a choice on but random thoughts and feelings.
The real thing to learn from these studies is that to make a good judgment, you need to take a few minutes (and I mean, literally, about 3 minutes), to access what you know that’s relevant. When you do so, you’ll find your judgments are very good — not at all resembling the randomly biased judgment that is reported in so many psychological studies.