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Can dissonance be ordered away?
Ideas for the extension of hand washing as possible means of reduction of the classic post-decisional dissonance effect in a replicated design

Von Kathrin Zabel (18.01.2012)

Human behavior can be interpreted as a function of the individual and its surroundings [1], with the individual including human experience. Psychology is the study of human experience and behavior [2]. Its goals are their description, explanation, prediction, and thus their control [3]. In order to reach these goals, phenomena of human life need to be identified and subsequently investigated. Thus, the phenomenon is at the onset of psychological research activities. Two such phenomena provide the basis for my diploma thesis:

First, people typically experience cognitive dissonance when their cognitions hold contrary implications for each other [4]. Especially after decisions, post-decisional cognitive dissonance can emerge. That means cognitions about the chosen alternative and the rejected ones are contradictious to the decision and thus produce dissonance [5]. Having made a decision bet­ween presented alternatives, people typically experience the contradiction of their decision with (a) the negative aspects of the chosen object and having chosen it anyway and (b) the positive aspects of the rejected object and having rejected it anyhow.

Cognitive dissonance produces negative tension within the person, who then whishes to re­duce this tension [4]: as a result, people usually prefer information supporting (consonant) the decision to opposing information (dissonant) when having committed to one alternative [5, 7, 8]. This can mean that people perceive the chosen alternative as more attractive and rejected alternatives as less attractive. These perception tendencies serve to justify the decision [4, 9].

[Bildunterschrift / Subline]: „The tragedy of post-decisional cognitive dissonance: no matter which one you choose, you will regret it anyway.“ (Picture by Kathrin Zabel)

Second, Spike Lee and Norbert Schwarz [6] found that hand cleaning was able to significantly reduce the classic post-decisional dissonance effect as described above. The authors offered participants of their study objects to choose between: four glasses of fruit jam were presented, out of two preselected by the experimenter, participants could choose one. The classic post-decisional dissonance effect, which typically follows a decision as used by Lee and Schwarz [6], was significantly reduced in conditions where participants cleaned their hands right after having decided. In contrary, the dissonance effect was not reduced in control groups who did not clean hands.

Up to here, nothing too new in terms of psychological research... now, what could be seen as new and innovative ideas on these findings?

Maybe this: Data indicate that the majority of the general population of human beings knows states cha­racteristic for obsessive-compulsive disorder (hereinafter: OCD) [10]. OCD is an anxiety disor­der [13]. Very briefly illustrated, obsessive-compulsive (hereinafter: OC) patients typically experience discomfort resulting from obsessive intrusions, i.e., thoughts, images, etc. Patients attempt to reduce the discomfort by performing compulsions, i.e., repetitive and often ritualistic behaviors [11]. Obsessions are individualized, common topics include anticipated threat, both physical and mental [12]. Frequently reported compulsions are washing, ordering, and checking [13].

Parallels in the effect of hand washing on the classic post-decisional dissonance effect as pointed out by Lee [6] and OCD could attract attention. Possible similarities could lie (a) in the existence of a negative internal state, i.e., tension in dissonance [4] and discomfort/anxiety in OCD [11] and (b) in acts aimed to reduce these states, i.e., selective information processing (increased perceived attractiveness of the chosen object vs. decreased perceived attractive­ness oft he rejected one) reduces tension and thus dissonance [4]; hand washing reduces tension and thus cognitive dissonance [6] as well as discomfort in OCD patients [14, 15].

Following this, I asked myself: Can ordering also reduce cognitive dissonance? What if I replaced hand cleaning in the repli­cated original design by ordering of tools in the corresponding tool box?

This link could perhaps be plausible, especially with a possible view to evolutionary perspec­tives on OCD-contents as potentially being highly useful in human life – apparently on subclini­cal levels.

More generally speaking, one could guess a connection between cognitive dis-sonance, ob­sessive-compulsive dis-order, and with order-ing almost imposing itself as feasible counter­vailing measure.

Furthermore, one could ask if personality traits would have implications for the ability of OCD-related actions on the reduction of dissonance – since there are associations of OCD and personality.

And could it reduce dissonance as well if attention was drawn from a cognitive focus (cognitive dissonance!) to a more bodily level? What if hand washing in the replicated original desing was replaced by knee bending, for example?

To finally come back to terms of cleaning – could dissonance be reduced if other body parts were cleaned, maybe feet, face, etc.? Clues for further replacements of hands in the washing condition can for example easily be found in literature, with the Buch der Bücher, the bible, leading the way – maybe accurately suggesting the most effective alternatives...?

Extending the cleaning idea: do people necessarily have to clean themselves, or would disso­nance be reduced by cleaning others’ hands or even by watching someone clean his/her hands? Will only cleaning of a person reduce dissonance or can cleaning of objects reduce as well? And if so, would it make a difference if people cleaned their own object vs. the object of another person vs. a public object?

Perhaps many possibly interesting ideas – and many more hints for the beautiful complexity of our interaction with our world, inside and outside.


[1] Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., & Schutte, N. S. (2005). The relationship between the five-factor model of personality and symptoms of clinical disorders: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 27, 101–114.

[2] Frey, D., & Gülker, G. (1988). Psychologie und Volkswirtschaftslehre: Möglichkeiten einer interdisziplinären Zusammenarbeit. In E. Boettcher, P. Herder-Dorneich, & K.-E. Schenk (Ed.), Jahrbuch für Neue Politische Ökonomie, 7, (p. 168-191). Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck).

[3] Gerring, R.J., & Zimbardo, P.G. (2007). Psychology and Life. (18th ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

[4] Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Fiske, A. P., & Haslam, N. (1997). Is obsessive-compulsive disorder of the human disposition to perform socially meaningful rituals? Evidence of similar content. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 185, 211–223.

[5] Jonas, E., Greenberg, J., & Frey, D. (2003). Connecting terror management and dissonance theory: Evidence that mortality salience increases the preference for consistent information after decisions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1181– 1189.

[6] Lee, S., & Schwarz, N. (2010). Washing away postdecisional dissonance. Science, 328, 709- 711.

  • Sommer 2011
  • Diplom in Psychologie, LMU München
  • seit 04/2007
  • Vertiefung in Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie sowie in angewandter Sozial- und Wirtschaftspsychologie im Haupt- sowie Psychopathologie im Nebenfach
  • 10/2006
  • Vordiplom, LMU München
  • seit 10/2004
  • Studium der Psychologie auf Diplom, LMU München

Berufliche Erfahrungen
  • 01/2010 bis 06/2011
  • Treems GmbH – Internet Start-Up, Umweltbranche (www.treems.com)
  • 05/2008
  • Co-Trainerin am LMU Center for Leadership and People Management
  • 07/2007 bis 12/2007
  • BMW Group, Werkstudentin im Bereich zentrales Personalwesen – Change Management Beratung
  • 04/2007 bis 07/2007
  • Siemens SIS, Change Agent Training

Preise und Auszeichnungen
  • seit 2006
  • Stipendiatin des Max Weber-Programms