TDL Brief: Listening to Experts

From the time we are children, we are told to listen to experts. These figures of authority usually begin as our parents, but as we grow up, they become teachers, industry experts, scientists and policy makers. When we are unsure of how to behave, we look to experts to nudge us in the right direction. 

Recently, the push to listen to experts has been stronger than ever. With the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic came a great amount of confusion about how to act. It seemed that recommendations and protocols were changing daily. With all this conflicting advice, and a growing public distrust in science, it is almost of no surprise that we have become reluctant to listen to the experts. Humans’ desire to avoid being told what to do, especially in individualistic countries like the U.S., makes us resistant to following experts’ recommendations about the pandemic. Some cognitive biases that influence whether or not we will listen to experts are further shaped by culture. We might be less likely to listen to female experts due to implicit gender biases.

1. Why Are People Hesitant to Listen to Experts When it Comes to COVID-19 Vaccines?

By Behavioral Scientist, Why Are People Ignoring Expert Warnings? — Psychological Reactance, (March 2020). 

The pandemic has brought many human tendencies to light, one of which is the fact that in recent years, many people have lost their faith in science and no longer trust scientific experts. Although in recent weeks, a number of vaccines have been approved across the globe, not everyone will agree to take the vaccine. Without first addressing people’s reluctance to listen to the experts, we won’t be out of the woods for a while. 

While vaccines in general are a controversial topic. Anti-vaxxer movements continued to persist before COVID-19, despite the vast amount of scientific data that supports the use of vaccines –  we want to more closely examine why there exists an opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is especially interesting that so many people are hesitant to take the FDA-approved vaccines, when both scientists and policymakers continue to stress its importance in our effort  to get back to normal. 

It may come as no surprise that the vaccine is facing hesitation: throughout the entire pandemic, policy makers and scientists have struggled to get people to understand the dire need to follow various safety measures such as wearing a mask and social distancing. People’s reluctance to take the vaccine is but the next step in defying authority. This phenomenon is known as reactance, identified by psychologist Jack Brehm back in 1966. When people feel as though their freedoms are threatened or reduced, they become motivated to try to regain those freedoms. In other words, they don’t listen to the experts who want to ensure we get through this pandemic as unscathed as possible because they feel that the experts are taking away their freedoms. People may not just ignore the advice, but actively lash out because they feel their freedom being threatened. 

A few other cognitive biases can also help to explain why people have begun to act more cavalierly about COVID-19 as the pandemic continues, and therefore why there may be a large group of people who refuse to take the vaccine. One bias, threat habituation, can cause us to become more nonchalant about the threat we are facing. Throughout the pandemic, we have been bombarded with messages about its danger, but those who have not experienced the danger of it itself – been exposed to COVID-19 –  may come to believe that the threat is being blown out of proportion.2 Our declining concern for the pandemic can also be described as caution fatigue, a term coined by professor of psychiatry Dr. Jacki Gollan. Caution fatigue occurs when our energy to remain cautious diminishes, as time has gone on and it has become more and more unclear when the pandemic will end.2

Psychological reactance, threat habituation and caution fatigue are all cognitive biases that demonstrate it will be difficult to get people to listen to experts’ vaccine advice. Scientists and policymakers will have to find creative ways to promote the vaccine, because relying on their expertise is no longer enough to sway people’s behavior. 

2. The Likelihood of Listening to Experts can be Culture-Dependent

By The Boston Globe, to survive the coronavirus, the United States must tighten up (March 2020)

Another factor that determines whether or not people are likely to listen to experts is culture. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen different countries employ different tactics for flattening the curve. In particular, there has been a stark contrast between authoritarian and democratic countries. China, an authoritarian country, was quick to take drastic measures as the outbreak began in March and put mandatory lockdown restrictions in place before the rest of the world had even come to terms with COVID-19. The U.S., by contrast, was much slower to impose restrictions and saw their numbers soar as a result.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has therefore brought to light is that people’s trust in experts can be culture-dependent. Asian countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia are used to having many strict government-imposed rules. The prevailing ideology in these authoritarian countries is that of collectivism, which promotes self-criticism, whereas North American countries like the U.S. adhere to individualism, which promotes self-enhancement.4 In other words, individuals in collectivist countries are more likely to believe something bad might happen to them if they do not comply with authority, and they are therefore more willing to adhere  to government-imposed rules.4 They are more likely to be prone to the pessimism bias that suggests we overestimate the likelihood of negative events happening to us. These differing ideals may in part be due to the fact that Asian countries with stricter rules have historically experienced more disasters and come to learn (the hard way) that rules can help save lives. Alternatively, people with individualistic ideologies are more likely to believe that good things will happen to them and are less likely to fear punishment or disaster if they do not follow authority’s guidelines. 

Individualistic countries are also more concerned about the freedoms of individuals, rather than the goals of society. This may help explain why the U.S. saw people quickly panic in response to the virus and behave in ways that would protect themselves, such as stealing masks and hoarding toilet paper. People in individualistic countries are more reluctant to give things up for others because they care more about the self than the group.

When it comes to beating the COVID-19 pandemic, these cultural differences in behavior suggest that overcoming the pandemic isn’t just about which nation has the most resources; it is also about the kind of behavior that is normalized in each country. Since North America’s prevailing ideologies are less helpful than collectivist countries when it comes to handling disasters, success may need to incorporate a shift in cultural patterns. 

3. Has Anti-Rationalism Become a Virtue?

By The New York Times, ‘The Death of the Expertise’ Explores How Ignorance became a Virtue (March 2017). 

In his book The Death of the Expertise, Tom Nichols, an academic specialist in international affairs, examines the growing disdain of expertise which he labels as a campaign against established knowledge. In this book, Nichols draws together articles and arguments made by various academics in recent years that help explain why people no longer seem to be listening to the experts for guidance on how to behave. 

Nichols attributes Trump’s 2016 presidential win to this growing phenomenon, suggesting that Trump capitalized on the fact that people are increasingly resistant to intellectual authority, as they believe authorities to be infringing on their freedom. The phenomenon is especially strong in the U.S., a country that prides itself on ideals of libertarianism and egalitarianism. 

One of the reasons humans don’t assess information in rational manners – taking into consideration both sides of an argument and weighing out the data to make an informed decision –  can be explained by the confirmation bias. The confirmation bias stipulates that people give much greater weight to evidence that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. This tendency is exacerbated in modern times by the vast amount of data at the tip of our fingers thanks to search-engines and websites like Google and Wikipedia. Even when people do encounter information that contradicts their beliefs, instead of meaningfully reflecting on this knowledge and allowing it to change their views, Nichols suggests that people often double-down on their beliefs. He calls this the backfire effect: when the desire to maintain a belief is so strong that we ignore hard evidence against it. This may too be explained due by  loss aversion, a cognitive bias demonstrating that  the negative power of losing something is stronger than the positive power of gaining that same thing. In other words, we hold onto our beliefs so that we don’t have to endure the painful experience of giving them up. 

Behavioral science may now be more necessary than ever, as it can help explain human behavior in a time marked by an aversion to listening to experts. Behavioral science models, particularly behavioral economics models, depart from the belief that people are rational and instead acknowledge that we are influenced by cognitive biases, including the confirmation bias, the backfire effect, and loss aversion. In a time during which people frequently believe in not believing in experts and data, we may need to turn to behavioral science to understand why, and try to nudge people once again toward trust in the experts. 

4. Female Experts are Less Likely to be Listened to 

By Vox, The #ManPanel problem: why are female experts still so widely ignored? (March 2016)

Despite the fact that there have been great strides toward gender equality in the past decade, there still exists a great disparity between the trust granted to experts of different sexes. In 2017, the editorial board at WomenAlsoKnowStuff conducted a study on New York Times articles written back in the 2016 primary race. This study found that over 80% of the political scientists quoted in the articles about the election were men. Similar trends were found in other media outlets, causing us to ask: why is it that fewer female experts are cited in the media?

Unfortunately, people have always perceived women’s intelligence to be lower than that of men. In 1978, researcher H. W. Hogan asked over 2000 participants to rate the intelligence of their parents and grandparents. Hogan found that both female and male participants projected higher IQ’s onto their male relatives than their female ones.7 What’s more is that when asked to rate their own intelligence, women greatly underestimated their own IQ’s while men overestimated theirs.7 These results demonstrate our implicit bias that women aren’t as smart as men; naturally, this bias makes news outlets more likely to turn to male experts for evidence or reasoning. The results of this study also show that even female journalists are more likely to pick male experts to back up their articles.

The lack of representation of female experts in the media might also be dependent on the topic of the articles. Research has shown that we are more likely to overestimate men’s intelligence in certain domains, such as mathematics and rational thinking. These areas are often ones in which people want to hear from an expert – and, when you hear the word expert, you might first think of scientists or policy makers. This might be one reason why one study found that 75% of national security and foreign affairs news commentators are men on primetime cable in the U.S. Not all fields require expert commentary, but ones that do are often male-dominated.

Moreover, the lack of representation of female experts in media outlets isn’t just because people are less likely to select quotes or data from female experts – it is a symptom of a larger problem of gender inequality. Women face barriers every step of the way in their career and as a result, there are fewer female experts to choose from in many lines of work. These embedded gender biases in the workplace need to first be addressed to give women a chance to become trusted (and therefore commonly cited) experts.

How Will Choice Overload Affect Our Post-Lockdown Fun?

It’s here: the days we’ve all been waiting for. After a year of Facetime dinners, puzzles instead of parties, and endless loaves of banana bread, those of us who live in nations where COVID-19 vaccines are accessible are now eagerly looking towards a summer of recreation, socializing, and freedom. But what will this feel like after months spent choosing between re-watching The Office for the twentieth time or an extra early bedtime?

Spoiled by choice

Choice overload occurs when we are faced with many options. As consumers, we may experience choice overload when having to decide among lots of products available for purchase. Though we often believe that more is better, in fact, having to select from a large assortment can lead to lower satisfaction and higher levels of regret.1

The effects of choice overload are felt not just in a material consumption context, but also when it comes to selecting experiences. A 2019 study conducted by Sthapit, Kozak, and Coudounaris found that vacationers were apt to experience choice overload when presented with many possible leisure activities while holidaying.2 These results suggest that we may experience similar frustrations when faced with a dramatic increase in entertainment options post-lockdown.

In addition to dissatisfaction and regret, choice overload can also prompt mental fatigue. Our brains can only make so many decisions within a given period of time: after a certain point, cognitive resources are depleted, and even simple choices become overwhelming. Pignatiello and colleagues summarize (2020): “[T]his phenomenon, known as decision fatigue, describes the impaired ability to make decisions and control behavior as a consequence of repeated acts of decision-making.”3

In sum, this means that being inundated with choices can precipitate poorer self-regulation and increased reliance on automatic, heuristic-based System 1 processing.4

Don’t believe me? Think about the last time you bought groceries. Chances are you walked right past the candy on your way into the store and headed straight for the first item on your list. Forty-five minutes later, after non-stop decision-making, you were likely much more tempted to swipe a sweet on your way out (that’s why seductive treats are displayed near the checkout).

This cognitive pattern also manifests in more sinister settings. In 2011, the New York Times chronicled the outcomes of two prisoners with identical crimes and sentences who were both applying for parole. The prisoner whose case was heard in the morning was granted freedom; his afternoon counterpart was not.5 In addition, research suggests that decision fatigue impacts physicians’ decision-making processes and can affect the care that patients receive.6

Choice overload, post-COVID

So, here we are, looking forward to social gatherings, restaurant dates, seeing movies in actual theaters, and more. It is possible that despite our eagerness to enjoy the finer things in life, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by this influx of opportunity, and could end up falling victim to both choice overload and decision fatigue. But fear not: we can take steps to ensure that our fun doesn’t suffer as a result of cognitive depletion.

Good enough is enough

There are those of us who continually seek out the ideal option, who are willing to devote extensive time and brainpower to carefully evaluating all possibilities in order to get the best of the best. In the coming months, these perfection-seekers, also known as maximizers, should follow the example of satisficers: those are content with the “good enough” route.7 When faced with conflicting invitations to a picnic, a party, and a pasta night, go with your gut and choose the activity that seems like it will bring you the most pleasure without spending inordinate time agonizing over the options.

No going back

Once you’ve made a decision, stick with it. Regret and indecision are hallmarks of choice overload that prompt dissatisfaction.8 Treat decisions as final, and avoid ruminating on what might have been.

Stop scrolling and start doing

Research has found that as time spent on social media platforms increases, the more users experience “FOMO” (fear of missing out).9 To avoid being haunted by images of social events and activities that you did not attend, cut the negativity off at the source. Limiting social media use may combat a host of negative correlates, including dissatisfaction and loneliness.10

So, as opportunities for out-of-the-house fun begin to roll in, remember to give your brain a break when faced with multiple opportunities: though you may be starved for variety, your cognitive reserves will need some time to catch up.

The Vaccine Optimism Effect: Why Vaccine News Might Reduce Social Distancing

The third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has struck with absolute ferocity, leaving many countries straining to cope under the pressure of exponential viral spread. Containing this spread has called for societal cohesion on a huge, unprecedented scale. Globally, citizens have been asked to abide by relatively novel social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations. Such requests, alongside the constantly shifting nature of government restrictions and public health advice, have left many grappling with “pandemic fatigue,”1 where their depleted self-control resources mean that they are much less likely to comply with the recommended pandemic mitigation strategies. 

Yet, with the continued success of global vaccination rollouts and consequent easing of lockdown restrictions, pandemic fatigue may be on the decline as people gradually regain some sense of normalcy in their lives. Indeed, promising early data on the successes of current vaccination campaigns has instilled a vestige of hope in people of a long-awaited end to the pandemic.2 However, set against this atmosphere of renewed hope is yet another behavioral bias with potentially catastrophic, pandemic-prolonging effects. 

Two plausible (and antagonistic) reactions to vaccination 

One might suppose that the promise of being vaccinated would steel people against any behavior that might increase their risk of infection. Logically, the prospect of getting vaccinated means that behaving more carefully now would not only delay infection of oneself or others, but could prevent it entirely. People would only have to make one last effort to avoid infection to fortify themselves against any chance of infection and thus ensure their own health and safety— which, given how social distancing and other preventive behaviors have become the “new normal,”3 would simply require people to exercise that little bit more patience. 

Yet, as a vast expanse of the decision science literature points out, humans are not exactly the best logicians. In fact, at a time where abiding by public health guidelines arguably matters the most, our indulgence in our own psychological lapses may negate even the most comprehensive vaccination efforts. 

Well-documented in the behavioral science literature is the fact that the way that we approach risk is predictably and drastically altered by our psychological state. For example, a seminal study by Yuen and Lee4 demonstrated that people in a depressive mood state were significantly more likely to make cautious decisions when faced with hypothetical dilemmas, such as a choice between living with a severe heart ailment or undergoing a potentially life-saving — but risky— medical operation. 

By contrast, individuals who were in a happy mood were more likely to make the risky choice (i.e., to choose to undergo the operation). Therefore, our pathological mood states can dramatically influence our risk-taking tendencies—a notion with potentially significant implications in the COVID-19 era. 

Unrealistic optimism in the COVID-19 era 

Evidently, media coverage of COVID-19 has been disproportionately focused on pessimistic content, which has left many people grappling with elevated levels of anxiety and hopelessness.5 More recent news about successful vaccination campaigns may therefore stand in sharp contrast to prior, more psychosocially-distressing headlines, possibly instilling a renewed sense of hope and optimism amongst citizens globally. But there’s a drawback: if such optimism makes people less worried about the pandemic, might this subsequently make them less likely to practice social distancing? 

A recent study6 by Andersson and colleagues at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics demonstrates precisely this pattern of optimism-induced recklessness.6 In their survey experiment, the researchers had half of the participants read information about the availability and effectiveness of current U.S. vaccination programs (e.g., “studies show that several vaccines have over 90% effectiveness, which is much better compared to vaccines against the seasonal flu”). The participants then completed a series of questionnaires about their intentions to abide by social distancing and stay-at-home rules. 

In the control group, the sequence of questionnaire completion was flipped, with participants answering the questionnaire before receiving the vaccine information. Thus, the manipulation allowed an elegant interpretation of whether vaccine information would causally impact those behaviors that are key for slowing the spread of the virus. 

Overall, learning about vaccines has a significant and detrimental effect on people’s health behaviors: the experimental participants reported significantly lower intentions to stay at home and social distance compared to the control participants. 

What could explain such a disparity in pandemic-related dispositions among the participants? Consistent with prior findings on the behavior-influencing effect of our everyday mood, it seems that unrealistic optimism (rather than pandemic fatigue) was to blame. Specifically, when asked to estimate the remaining duration of the pandemic, participants in the experimental (versus control) group gave much shorter estimates. Put simply, people who had learned about upcoming vaccines were more likely to think that the pandemic would be over sooner, and that life would soon return to normal—an unrealistically optimistic state of mind that potentiated their reckless behavior. 

Overall, these results illustrate how our behavioral dispositions can be dramatically influenced by the prevailing context. Insofar as our vaccination perceptions are clouded by a sense of unrealistic optimism, our resultant behavior may reflect a false reality in which COVID-19 is no longer a huge public health concern. 

Is the vaccine optimism effect propelling a new wave of infections? 

If some premature optimism about the prospect of vaccination “frees” people to avoid their responsibility to social distance, this may partly explain why many countries—especially those in which vaccine rollouts are in their relative infancy—are facing seemingly insurmountable challenges in curbing a new wave of COVID-19 infections. 

This revelation is hugely important because it is at odds with rational models of forward-looking behavior, which predict that social distancing would increase amongst those anticipating vaccination.7 Yet, people seem to behave less carefully when they expect to become vaccinated, not more. Therefore, our behavioral idiosyncrasies, combined with the looming threat of new and constantly evolving variants, may provide fertile ground for the coronavirus to stake an enduring claim on humanity as we know it. 

Where do we go from here? 

The vaccine optimism effect has potentially huge public health and policy implications. Though a natural and reasonable cause for celebration, successful vaccination campaigns may potentiate riskier pandemic behavior. As the effectiveness of any pandemic-related policy hinges on the compliance of citizens, it may not suffice for governments and policymakers to provide simple social distancing recommendations if these might be easily disregarded as a function of people’s poor psychological motivations. 

Moreover, the powerful influence of social norms8 means that this optimism-induced recklessness runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Reicher and Drury note in their BMJ article9 on the practicality of non-adherence during the pandemic, “If we believe that the norm is to ignore the rules, it may lead us to ignore them too.” Therefore, the very real chance of unrealistic optimism within the public, and its resultant detrimental effects on behavior, might call for stricter government restrictions vis-à-vis social distancing and other key health behaviors. 

Yet, whether stricter measures are warranted is contentious and may be reasonably met with public resistance, as citizens may naturally expect restrictions to ease following widespread reports of successful vaccine rollouts. When evaluating policy scenarios, then, two recommendations are in place. 

First, governments should tailor their vaccine communications more cautiously so as to avoid instilling unrealistic optimism amongst the public. Strong reminders to the public not to let their guard down and to continue following social distancing and mask-wearing recommendations may be necessary. 

Second, when disseminating news about current immunization programs, an important caveat should be highlighted—namely, that full protective immunity is not achieved immediately after vaccination,10 and so continuing to take extra precautions is necessary. Overall, distinguishing injection from protection may be critical to avoid instilling unrealistic vaccine optimism in individuals. 

All of this notwithstanding, what may be even more important is to recognize our innate psychological lapses and to exert conscious effort to overcome them. Realizing that we may be predisposed towards being falsely optimistic about an end to the pandemic (which may not be nearly as imminent as current vaccine successes make it out to be),11 it is only sound that the notions of prevention and protection continue to be a top-of-mind priority. 

Ultimately, inasmuch as social distancing and other pandemic mitigation regulations implemented in the past year have been both economically and psychologically costly, we risk prolonging their cost should we further indulge in our own psychological frailties.

Zooming Out: The Impact of Distance on our Decisions

Before the dawn of space exploration, astronomer Fred Hoyle predicted that “once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available . . . a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

Indeed, once space travel began, astronauts commonly reported having self-transcendent experiences upon seeing Earth from an entirely new vantage point. The feelings of awe, increased self-awareness, and the new perspectives of the world that astronauts gained after looking down at our planet from space became known as the “overview effect.”1

While most of us are unlikely to ever have the same view as an astronaut in space, distance does influence our judgment. Researchers across several fields have found that manipulating distance significantly influences how we make decisions.

The underlying explanation for this phenomenon is known as construal level theory. Essentially, our change in preferences often reflects a movement in psychological distance.2,3,4,5 Psychological distance can be temporal (future or current), spatial, social, or hypothetical.

The reason this occurs is because of “grounded cognition,” or the way that bodily states generate cognitive states. While we often use physical dimensions and qualities as metaphors to describe the world around us—for instance, “down” implies sadness while “up” implies happiness; “hot” implies closeness while “cold” implies distance—research suggests these states also influence how we process information.6

Several studies show an effect of construal on our decision-making in a wide variety of contexts. This article takes a look at the importance of psychological distance in just a few of these domains, from the products we purchase to the way we approach vaccination.

How psychological distance shapes our decisions

Consumer decision-making

Physical distance can impact our decisions as consumers. Researchers from the University of Toronto manipulated distance and height in a series of studies to influence financial decision-making.

In one study, the researchers told students they would be entered into a lottery, with a 1 in 100 chance to win $50. The researchers manipulated distance in several ways. Most significantly, the researchers presented participants with a map showing a fictional city. For some participants, the researchers described the city as being north of their current location, while others were told the city was to the south.

Researchers asked participants to draw a line between the fictional city and their current location. After completing the drawing exercise, the researchers told participants that if they won the lottery, they would have the option of receiving either $50 immediately (the smaller, sooner reward) or $65 in three months (the larger, later reward).

The researchers found that participants who were told that they were north of (and therefore “higher” than) the fictional city tended to prefer the larger, later reward. Meanwhile, those that were south of (and therefore “lower” than) the city tended to prefer the smaller, sooner reward. Interestingly, after asking participants to rate slogans for the made-up city, participants in the “high” location preferred slogans that emphasized the long-term benefits of the city, compared to slogans that emphasized short-term benefits.6

These results suggest that psychological height has implications for whether we focus on the “big picture,” or gravitate more towards immediate gratification. Participants who were primed to think of themselves as being “higher up” were oriented more towards options that would be more beneficial in the long term, even if it came at the expense of short-term reward.


People are more likely to improve their recycling behavior when prompted to think about the here and now. One study at a hotel increased guests’ recycling by 22% by framing messages in concrete terms. Another study found that behaviors improved more after exposure to signage asking people to “Think about your city today,” compared to messages that focused on the long-term, big-picture costs of not recycling. Researchers based in Germany found similar results in studying how to increase the purchase of organic food.7,8,9

Advertising and messaging

Manipulating psychological dimensions also influences how people react to messaging. Participants in a marketing study had less favorable attitudes towards “taboo” ads (ads that may cause discomfort or may be viewed as violating social norms) when they were perceived to be closer to them, either psychologically or socially.2

Our perceptions of others

Other work found that using construal level to broaden perspectives may lead decision-makers to maximize the outcomes of the collective rather than those of specific individuals in a simulated economic game.11 These insights demonstrate that construal level theory is an important concept that predicts how decision-makers are likely to allocate outcomes efficiently among different people.

These four case studies emphasize how subtle changes in our perceived distance significantly influence our decision-making. These experiments (among many) provide rich insights into how to better design our practices in several domains.

Construal theory has implications for both policy and business

As we’ve seen, the level of psychological distance people have from a given topic can have major consequences for the choices they make. Researchers have argued that we should be leveraging this fact in both the private and public spheres. For example:

  • Store design: Aggarwal and Zhao advise placing items that inspire long-term benefits on a higher level of the store. They noticed this approach in a Toronto bookstore. The first level contained colorful gifts and bestsellers in easy-to-find locations, where the second floor contained biography, history, health, etc.6
  • Promotions: Construal level also influences how and when we offer promotions or additional features. For instance, a realtor selling an apartment might have a better chance of adding additional features when the apartment is on a higher floor. Customers looking to buy a car might focus more on the vehicle’s price than on its benefits if they’re sitting in smaller cars or cars that are lower to the ground during a test drive.6 
  • Technology: Because we can simulate distance, financial technology applications can also use their insight in designing their apps. For example, having images of city skylines or views from mountaintops when pushing promotions or features could inspire users to focus more on the bigger picture.
  • Vaccination: Construal messaging may influence vaccine uptake. In one experiment, researchers asked participants to read stories about vaccination that were either present-oriented (focused on the short-term benefits of vaccination) or future-oriented (focused on the long-term benefits). They found that messages framed in the present led to stronger intentions to get the vaccine.12

How we can use construal messaging to help us at work and in life

Knowing what we do about construal theory, it’s also possible to set up our environments in such a way that we nudge ourselves towards desired outcomes. Here are just a few applications of construal theory in our daily lives.

  • Where we work: These results could have implications for the locations where we choose to work. For example, during a strategy meeting, the ideal location may be somewhere like the top floor of an office building (or a hot air balloon, if one prefers), to orient team members towards the big picture. Alternatively, when writing a detailed safety manual, the best location to work may be seated in a chair that’s relatively low to the ground. Remote work provides us with some ability to use construal theory to influence our work by controlling our physical surroundings, our computer background, or whether we face a window.
  • “Why versus how”: We improve our long-term intentions when we put ourselves in a higher-level, more abstract mindset. Doing so helps us save more money3 and find eco-friendly products more appealing.10 Essentially, if we want to improve our intentions to do something over the long term, we can focus on “why” we are doing it instead of “how”—in essence, focusing on the forest, not the trees.
  • Self-talk: Distance influences how we talk to ourselves. A group of researchers found in several experiments that “[d]istanced as opposed to immersed self-talk reduced emotional reactivity when people reflected on negative experiences that varied in their emotional intensity.” According to Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, creating psychological distance can improve our reasoning and arguments.13,14

To paraphrase an old saying, “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Better yet, distance may shape our decision-making in even subtler ways than we expect. Examples from research on financial decision-making, recycling behaviors, and our perceptions of advertisements demonstrate the power of psychological distance on how we perceive situations and subsequently make decisions.

This knowledge provides important insights for policy, business, and even our personal lives. Through understanding construal level theory and its implications, we may be able to better design how we work, shop, and live in the future.