Are you a person who procrastinates when faced with overwhelming tasks? Do you find it difficult to stick to a diet, or perhaps you are a compulsive shopper? Have you ever expressed something you later regretted? Are you contented or disappointed with your life? If any of the above rings true for you, then psychological distance tricks could help.
What Is Psychological Distancing?
‘Psychological distance is the space between us, events, objects, and people.’
Research shows we respond in different ways to events, objects, or people, depending on how close or far away they are.
For instance, imagine you have accepted an invitation to a wedding you don’t want to attend. In the first scenario, the wedding date is next year; in the second scenario, next week. The event is the same with the same attendees, location, dress code, etc. Only the timing has changed.
If the wedding is next year, you’ll think of it in abstract terms, i.e. the approximate location, what you might wear, and how you will get there. But, if the wedding is next week, you’ll use more detailed terms, i.e. the address of the wedding, your outfit will be chosen, and you have arranged to travel with your friends.
We call this type of thinking the high way and the low way.
- We activate the high way when an event is far away. We use simple, abstract, and vague terms. For example, ‘I’ll ask for a pay rise at the end of this year.”
- We activate the low way when an event is imminent. We use complex, concrete, and detailed terms. For example, “I’ll ask for a 10% pay rise on Monday.”
Psychological distance is important for several reasons.
Events far away hold less emotional value. As the event draws closer, the more emotional we become. This can be useful when dealing with arguments, disagreements, and family feuds.
By purposefully lengthening the distance between ourselves, we can decrease the level of emotion attached to the stressful event. It’s like stepping back from an emotional blowup and seeing the bigger picture.
On the contrary, if we want to become more involved and focused on a task or project, we shorten the distance. We can move closer to the situation if we need to concentrate.
Four types of psychological distance
Research shows four types of psychological distance:
- Time: Activities and events occurring soon compared to those further away in the future.
- Space: Objects closer to us compared to those further away.
- Social distance: People who are different compared to those who are similar.
- Hypothetical: The probability of something happening.
Now that you know what psychological distancing is, here are 10 psychological distance tricks:
10 Psychological Distance Tricks
1. Coping with onerous tasks
“Activating an abstract mindset reduced the feeling of difficulty.” Thomas & Tsai, 2011
Research shows increasing the psychological distance not only reduces the pressure of a task but lessens the anxiety attached to it. By using vague and abstract thinking, you gain distance from the task.
Surprisingly, physical distance also helps with difficult tasks. Participants reported less anxiety and stress in tests by simply leaning back in their chairs. So, the next time you have a problem, thinking of a solution in abstract and vague terms may help you cope with it.
2. Resistance to social influence
“…when individuals think about the same issue more abstractly, their evaluations are less susceptible to incidental social influence and instead reflect their previously reported ideological values.” Ledgerwood et al, 2010
Our beliefs make us who we are. But studies show strangers or groups can influence us. However, one way we can be true to ourselves is to psychologically distance ourselves from the topic.
For instance, several studies suggest we are more likely to change our minds if presented with actual, concrete examples. But if we use abstract thinking, it is harder for people to socially influence us.
For example, people are more likely to use anecdotal and personal experiences to sway opinions. Keeping the topic broad and vague allows us an objective viewpoint.
3. Dealing with highly emotive situations
“…negative scenes generally elicited less negative responses and lower levels of arousal when imagined moving away from participants and shrinking.” Davis et al, 2011
It’s easy to get caught up in an emotionally charged situation. However, you can reduce your level of emotion by moving the negative scene away from you. Studies show that if you imagine the scene and people involved receding, you feel calmer and in control.
By moving the scene away, you step out of the subjective intensity and become more objective. This gives you a clearer and bigger picture.
4. Men prefer intelligent women (as long as they are far away)
“…when targets were psychologically near, men showed less attraction toward women who outsmarted them.” Park et al, 2015
Women, if you want to attract men, here’s what you need to know. Six studies reported that men were more attracted to intelligent women when they were psychologically distant. However, the closer the men got to the target women, the less attractive the women seemed to them.
So, ladies, keep your powder dry if you want to attract a guy.
5. Improve your creativity
“… when the creative task is portrayed as originating from afar rather than close location, participants provide more creative responses and perform better on a problem-solving task that requires creative insight.” Jai et al, 2009
If I’m stuck on a particular topic, I might leave it and do some housework to take a break. I’m hoping that by returning, I may come back refreshed and full of new ideas. And while this does work sometimes, so does imaging the task in the future. What does the finished result look like?
Research shows that psychologically distancing yourself from the task increases your creative output.
6. Introducing new ideas
“Novelty is related to hypotheticality in that “novel events are unfamiliar and often subjectively improbable. Novel objects may therefore be perceived as more psychologically distant” Trope & Liberman, 2010
People are more likely to accept new ideas if they are talked about in abstract and vague terms, i.e., psychologically distanced. New knowledge is untested and unproven; it has no background in success.
However, by not forcing people to accept concrete ideas (psychologically closer), there is a better chance of new ideas at least being discussed.
7. Saving or paying off debt
We use abstract terms to describe events in the future. For events closer to us, we use more detailed descriptions. For example,
“I’m going to pay off my debts by the end of the year” (abstract/far future) to “I will pay £50 a month to clear my debt” (detailed/near future).
On the other hand, by looking into the future, we can imagine ourselves in more detail. Research demonstrates that when showing participants aged pictures of their faces, they can identify with their older selves in the future. As a result, they significantly increased the amount they put aside for retirement.
Thinking about your life in the future in more detailed terms (psychologically closer) can help you with decisions in the immediate future.
8. Tackling climate change
Climate change is a global threat, but many people don’t understand the risks or take it seriously. So far, I have talked about pushing things away to create distance, but this is one topic that benefits from concrete thinking, i.e., bringing it closer.
If you want to persuade someone that climate change is real and dangerous, the trick is to bring it psychologically closer. Talk about your immediate environment, make it personal and relevant to the individual.
“…this psychological distance can make individuals view environmental issues as less urgent, feel a less personal responsibility for these issues, and believe that their pro-environmental efforts will have little effect.” Fox et al, 2019
9. Keeping to your diet
If a delicious cake is close to you (in the fridge), you are more likely to eat it. It is not just physically close, but also psychologically close.
However, if that cake is in the supermarket, three miles away, you can’t see the creamy frosting, the moist sponge, the succulent jam filling. You can only imagine it. Objects far away have less value than those closer to us.
The spatial distance can help control temptation. Studies show our interest in an object decreases the further away it is. If it moves closer, our interest increases. Studies show that by merely facing an object, we perceive it to be closer.
10. Being more productive
Here are two examples: if you are procrastinating about a huge project and find that you cannot get started, imagine that you have already completed it. What does it look like now in your mind? Can you visualise the steps you took to complete the project?
How many times have you said, “I’ll start the new diet next week”? Studies show that procrastinating dieters should focus on the outcome rather than the journey. Imagining yourself thinner and fitter reduces anxiety and allows you to relax.
Psychological distancing shows how effective playing around with time, space, social distance, and probability can be. By using abstract and broad, or concrete and detailed, we can manipulate and, therefore, navigate our way towards a more productive and less stressful life.
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