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.

Recycling

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.

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