"I Need Some Distance."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

By Wray Herbert

We’ve all said it many times, or at least thought it. We feel the need for ‘psychological distance’ from a person or an event when we get bogged down in the clutter of details and need some meaningful perspective on things. Put another way, we feel “too close” to an experience to sort out what’s important and what isn’t.

Scientists have been studying this gut level feeling, and now believe that our perception of psychological distance may actually be closely related to how we think about geographical distance. New York University psychologists Kentaro Fujita and Marlone Henderson performed a couple simple experiments, in which they asked people to imagine an ordinary event. Specifically, they were to imagine helping a friend move into a new apartment. In some cases the event took place nearby (“outside of New York City, about three miles away from here”) and in other cases at a distance (“outside of Los Angeles, about 3000 miles away from here”).

Leaving aside the fact that one should never get roped into helping friends move, the researchers then asked the participants to imagine (and describe) a series of behaviors related to helping their friend move: locking a door, for example, and paying the rent. As they describe in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, they found that when people were close to an event, they tended to think in rudimentary, mechanical terms: So locking a door would be “putting a key in the lock” and paying the rent would be simply “writing a check.” By contrast, those who had some distance from an event tended toward higher level interpretations that emphasized a behavior’s meaning: Thus locking the door was construed as “securing the house” and paying the rent was “maintaining a place to live.” This striking difference was seen even with seemingly irrelevant behaviors: For example, those close to the imagined event described climbing a tree as “holding on to branches,” while those at some remove thought in terms of “getting a good view.” (Clearly the former group couldn’t see the forest for the trees.)

So distance gives us meaning. Other studies have shown that time has the same effect as geography. That is, a recent event is interpreted in a much more pedestrian manner than a distant event, which is seen as more abstract and purposeful, suggesting that different kinds of distance are closely intertwined in our minds. So the word ‘travel’ for some may mean merely purchasing a ticket and boarding a plane, while for others it may conjure up something psychologically grander, more akin to “getting away from it all.”

For more insights into the human mind, visit the Association for Psychological Science at www.psychologicalscience.org.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:04 PM


At 9:19 AM , Blogger Cassandra_Moderna said...

I am originally from southern Illinois, where people used to drive up to St. Louis to go shopping, a trip of about 2 hours. Later, I lived near Amsterdam for about 7 years. Brussels was only about 3.5 hours away (my memory may be faulty here), and to me this didn't seem any distance at all. But to the Dutch, in their tiny country, a trip to Brussels was considered a major expedition (although nowadays it may seem closer). I found this differing perception of distance very intriguing.


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