Have you ever felt that it is easier to solve other people’s problems than your own?
Research shows that we think about problems more rationally when they involve other people. Why? Psychological distance. Distance shifts our focus from the concrete details of a situation that might bias thinking towards a more expansive perspective. It allows us to see the bigger picture.
Just imagine a colleague who feels stressed about deciding between two equally attractive job offers. You might have several tips for them, including considering the most important aspects of the job.
Now, imagine that you are the one who is facing the same decision. Suddenly, it is not as easy to reason objectively, right?
Moving away from the “here and now”
Psychological distance also exists on the temporal dimension. We reason differently based on whether a decision involves something happening very soon (next week) or in the distant future (next year).
When making decisions for the near future, we focus on the concrete details and ask “how” questions, such as “how will I make this decision?”. On the other hand, deciding for something further away in time activates more abstract thoughts like personal goals and values, such as “why am I making this decision?”.
The ability to expand our mental horizons by abstracting away from the “here and now” is a uniquely human ability. It is what helped humans evolve. Research has also shown that people who regularly adopt a broad and distant perspective on negative events experience less stress.
Fear and risk-taking
In a recent study, we wondered whether distancing could regulate emotional biases in judgment and decision-making. Specifically, we focused on how distancing might regulate the influence of fear on risk-taking.
Fear is an emotion known to reduce risk-taking and optimism. Although fear and risk aversion may be desirable in some cases, they can also decrease creativity, well-being and satisfaction at work.
In our first set of experiments, we found that individuals who generally experience high levels of fear were significantly less likely to take risks. However, this relationship disappeared among individuals who adopted a distant perspective. In fact, the “distancers” were much more likely to take risks.
A follow-up experiment showed that distancing could help reduce people’s fears about the pandemic and increase their optimism about the future. Not only do these findings support folk sayings like "time heals all wounds," but they also suggest that people can mentally project themselves into the future to regulate their feelings and perceptions in the here and now.
Three ways to create distance
The good news is that all of us can create this psychological distance at our own will. Here is how, described in three easy steps:
- Take a step back and zoom out: When you find yourself facing a difficult decision, try to look at things from the perspective of a distant, uninvolved observer.
- Ask yourself, “how will this impact me ten years from now?”: The human brain is wired to direct attention towards negative information, so it is no surprise that negative feelings are more difficult to shake. Mentally projecting yourself into the future can help to make you realize that your perception of a particular event and its consequences, may change or even fade with time.
- Gain distance by asking someone else for their perspective: Creating distance is not always easy. Try seeking out advice from others who are not as immersed in the decision as you are. They will help you see things more clearly from their neutral and more distant perspective.
Mayiwar, L., & Björklund, F. (in press). Fear from afar, not so risky after all: Distancing moderates the relationship between fear and risk taking. Frontiers in psychology. PsyArxiv. https://psyarxiv.com/p9cyr
Grossmann, I., & Kross, E. (2014). Exploring Solomon’s paradox: Self-distancing eliminates the self-other asymmetry in wise reasoning about close relationships in younger and older adults. Psychological science, 25(8), 1571-1580. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535400
Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological review, 117(2), 440. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018963