Urgent Issues

As we get the family ready for the car trip, the big question before we ask “Did we lock the door?” is the interrogation of the kids: “Do need to go to the bathroom?” Most of us are aware of how, when we are crawling along in traffic, our critical perception of the skill set of other drivers around us is sharpened in direct proportion to the pressure on our bladder. This improved performance in our criticizing ability and creative use of language is known among the cognoscenti as ‘inhibitory spillover’.

Although it is known that this type of visceral state can screw up our ability to exert self-control, this is not what we are addressing here. We are discussing the improved performance at making important judgments. This has not been sufficiently appreciated in the past. The situation has now been remedied by the publication of a study (1) from an international team centered at the Katholieke U of Leuven, in which nearly two hundred students, who were hopping from one foot to the other after having been fed beakers of water, were asked to do interesting psychological tests. Their performance was compared to a control group who were relaxed and comfortable.

The tests were particularly interesting. For the first, the students had to give the meaning to a list of words that were printed in a variety of colors.  Color identification in this case is a secondary response and, of course, speed was of the essence. Those, whose need for speed was the greatest, performed more accurately indicating that inhibitory spillover from the dominant response (word meaning) to the secondary had occurred.

After a water break, the next task was undertaken. In this case, the students had to make a choice between the instant gratification of a cash reward and a longer-term investment with a substantially bigger cash reward. The greater the bladder pressure, the better the choice, that is, the more likely that they would choose the higher reward option.

Finally, there were one hundred and thirty students left standing. Giving lists of words to the students to read tested the feedback link between cognition and perception. The control group just had ordinary words to read. The pressure tested had a list of words connected to their predicament, such as ‘bladder,’ ‘toilet’ etc. The inhibitory spillover here increased their patience as they were focusing on important issues.

It is interesting to note that the study was from the Department of Marketing and Organisation Studies in the Faculty of Business and Economics. I expect to see a rapid decrease in the availability of those ubiquitous bottles of water at important discussions with clients who are there to purchase, but at the same time all negotiating execs will be carrying a large capacity personal water bottle along with their Blackberry when go into critical business negotiations.

No uninhibited spillovers were reported, so no one was sent home for a change of clothing after having mopped the floor.

  1. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1720956


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