Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Psychology of Transcending the Present

Liberman and Trope suggest an underlying similarity in all of our mental operations that are not dealing with the here and now:
People directly experience only themselves here and now but often consider, evaluate, and plan situations that are removed in time or space, that pertain to others' experiences, and that are hypothetical rather than real. People thus transcend the present and mentally traverse temporal distance, spatial distance, social distance, and hypotheticality. We argue that this is made possible by the human capacity for abstract processing of information. We review research showing that there is considerable similarity in the way people mentally traverse different distances, that the process of abstraction underlies traversing different distances, and that this process guides the way people predict, evaluate, and plan near and distant situations.
Here is one clip from the article on the interrelations among psychological distance dimensions:
Try to complete the sentence "A long time ago, in a ____ place." The tendency to complete it with "far away" rather than with "nearby" reflects not only a literary convention but also an automatic tendency of the human mind. Indeed, people use spatial metaphors to represent time in everyday language and reasoning. More generally, if psychological distance is reflected in different dimensions, then these dimensions should be mentally associated. Remote locations should bring to mind the distant rather than the near future, other people rather than oneself, and unlikely rather than likely events. Initial support for this hypothesis comes from a set of studies in which participants viewed landscape photographs containing an arrow that was pointing to either a proximal or a distal point on the landscape. Each arrow contained a word denoting either psychological proximity (e.g., tomorrow, we, sure) or psychological remoteness (e.g., year, others, maybe) (Figure below). Participants had to respond by pressing one of two keys as quickly and as accurately as possible. In one version of the task, they had to indicate whether the arrow pointed to a proximal or distal location. In another version, they had to identify the word printed in the arrow [Stroop task]. In both versions, participants responded faster to (i.e., processed more efficiently) distance-congruent stimuli (in which the spatially distant arrow contained a word that denoted large temporal distance, large social distance, or low likelihood and the spatially proximal arrow contained words that denoted temporal proximity, social proximity or high likelihood) than to distance-incongruent stimuli (in which spatially distal arrows contained words denoting proximity and spatially proximal arrows contained words denoting remoteness).

Figure: Two examples of incongruent visual stimuli: a word denoting social proximity, "us," located far from the observer, and a word denoting social remoteness, "them," located near the observer. Because spatial distance is associated with temporal distance, social distance, and hypotheticality, participants are slower to indicate the location of the arrow and to identify the word on it with incongruent stimuli than with congruent stimuli "us" located near the observer and "them" located far from the observer.

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