“What the eyes don’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over” says an old proverb. However, denying the evidence and looking the other way is not usually the best strategy, but it can lead us to make bad decisions that we later end up regretting.
In this regard, the philosopher Ayn Rand said: “we can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.” That is why, instead of ignoring the facts and simply sitting and waiting for life to decide in our place, the smartest thing to do is to learn to establish a psychological distance.
What is psychological distance?
We do not perceive an event in the same way when it develops closer to us than when it occurs in the distance. When events occur very close, we respond with a higher level of emotional activation since we perceive that we can be directly involved in the situation. When they occur farther, we feel calmer and the level of emotional involvement is lower.
Therefore, the psychological distance is the subjective space that we perceive between ourselves and things, events or people. It is an experience of egocentric separation, in which we become the point of reference, from which we see things in perspective, as if we were a third person not involved in the situation or, on the contrary, we are involved at the intellectual and emotional level. The ability to adjust the psychological distance is very important for life, as demonstrated by a study developed at the University of Michigan.
These psychologists found that when we assume a psychological distance, we are not only more likely to recognize the limits of our knowledge, but we also accept the probability that the future will change. In practice, the psychological distance allows us to be more humble and self-conscious, being at the same time more flexible and open to uncertainty, key characteristics to become wise and balanced people.
The two levels of analysis of the psychological distance
All the events can be located in an imaginary line with respect to us, at one extreme we place the “absolutely distant” and at the other the “absolutely close”. Based on this, we activate a level of processing, which can follow two ways: low or high. Both are activated unconsciously, but we apply them day after day.
The high way
When an event is distant in time, in space, it differs from our social sphere or it is very unlikely to happen, we process it in a “high” way. That is, we work with an abstract, simple, structured and decontextualized representation because being “far away” simply prevents us from accessing a more precise image or does not motivate us to delve into what is happening.
The interesting thing is that when the “high way” is activated, we usually apply that level of processing to all the incoming information related to the event. That is, we apply a more imprecise and general scheme to everything that, in one way or another, is related to the situation we perceive as distant.
The research on retirement savings decisions suggests that, although people know they should save more for the future, they spend a lot and save very little. This is due to the fact that the retirement is processed by the “high” way since it is perceived as something very distant. And everything related to that issue is also processed in the same way, so we do not think it necessary to take concrete actions here and now, we just postpone it. That is one of the effects of the psychological distance.
The low way
If the events are closer in space and time, we feel identified with them or are quite likely to occur, we will activate the “low way”. That means that we will build representations as concrete as possible, complex, deconstructed and decontextualized. That is precisely what we do with all the important information in our life.
When something is relevant, it is usually a very concrete fact, but even so it extends to many areas of our life and we usually end up with a rather complex but disorganized idea of what is happening, because we are exploring different options trying to find a satisfactory explanation.
If a relationship goes bad, we will be so emotionally involved with what happens that we process it for the low way. We find it difficult to assume a psychological distance and reflect objectively on the situation we are living. All the events linked to this relationship will crowd our minds generating chaos and confusion, but we will not be able to assess them properly because emotions prevent us from doing so.
How to adjust the different levels of psychological distance?
The psychological distance manifests itself in different levels, each one has a concrete effect on our behavior and emotions, a phenomenon studied by the Construal Level Theory. These levels can be adjusted to assume a more objective attitude, analyze our cognitive biases and the level of emotional involvement in the situation. In most cases it is necessary to increase the psychological distance, but in other occasions we must decrease it to perform a more concrete and sensitive analysis of the problem.
– Social Distance. Social distance is that which exists between us and the others, which is shortened when we are able to put ourselves in the place of the other and be empathic. On the contrary, it lengthens when we use a more abstract and depersonalized language, or when we are not receptive to its discourse and do not validate its emotions.
– Temporal Distance. Temporal distance is measured in terms of past, present and future. It has been shown that when we establish shorter deadlines we are more productive, we are less burdened and we get better results. The psychological strategy to properly manage the temporal distance is to visualize the future. For example, if you feel anxious about a project that you must finish, imagine that you have already concluded it. Focusing on immediate results will help you relax and get better results.
– Spatial Distance. Spatial distance is one of the easiest to manipulate. For example, it has been shown that when you move an object away from you your interest towards it decreases, but if you approach it, your interest increases. It is a particularly interesting trick for dieting, but putting a distance between you and the person you were discussing with will also allow you to get away from the problem and calm down.
– Experiential Distance. The experiential distance is measured by the gap between what we imagine and expect and what we finally live. The bigger that gap, the greater the frustration and anger can be. On the contrary, the smaller is, the greater our satisfaction. The way to manipulate this distance is to keep our expectations at bay. Being willing to live experiences without expectations is the best way to get the most out of experiential distance.
The interesting thing is that, each time you adjust a level, you shorten or lengthen the psychological distance, so that you can get more involved in the situation or, on the contrary, assume a more objective perspective. Depending on the situation and your coping strategies, you can play with the different distances to take the best decisions at each moment.
Kross, E., & Grossmann, I. (2012) Boosting Wisdom: Distance From the Self Enhances Wise Reasoning, Attitudes, and Behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General; 141(1): 43-48. Fiedler, K. et. Al. (2012) On the relations between distinct aspects of psychological distance: An ecological basis of construal-level theory. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; 48(5): 1014–1021. Trope, Y. & Liberman, N. (2011) Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance. Psychol Rev; 117(2): 440–463.