Psychological distance: The key to wisdom and balance

Psychological distance: The key to wisdom and balance

"Eye that does not see heart that does not hurt" goes an old proverb. However, denying the evidence and looking the other way is usually not the best strategy, but it can lead us to make bad decisions that we will later regret.

In this regard, the philosopher Ayn Rand said: "we can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality". That's why, instead of ignoring the facts and sitting around waiting for life to decide for us, the smartest thing to do is to learn to establish a psychological distance.

What is psychological distance?

We do not perceive an event in the same way when it occurs near us than when it occurs far away. When events happen very close to us, we react with a higher level of emotional arousal because we perceive that we can be directly involved in the situation. When they happen far away, we feel calmer and the level of emotional involvement is lower.

Therefore, psychological distance is the subjective space we perceive between ourselves and things, events or people. It is an egocentric experience of separation, in which we become the point of reference from which we see things in perspective, as if we were a third person not involved in the situation or, on the contrary, we get involved on an intellectual and emotional level. The ability to regulate psychological distance is very important in life, as demonstrated by a study developed at the University of Michigan.

These psychologists discovered that when we take psychological distance we are not only more likely to recognize the limits of our knowledge, but we also accept the likelihood that the future will change. In practice, psychological distance allows us to be more humble and self-aware, while being more flexible and open to uncertainty, key characteristics for becoming wise and balanced people.

The two levels of psychological distance analysis

All events can be located in an imaginary line with respect to us, at one extreme we place everything that is "absolutely distant" and at the other what is "absolutely close". Based on this, we activate a processing level that can follow two paths: low or high. Both are activated unconsciously, but we apply them day after day.

The high path

When an event is distant in time, in space, differs from our social sphere or is very unlikely to happen, we process it in a "high" way. That is, we work with an abstract, simple, structured and decontextualized representation, because being “distant” prevents us from accessing a more precise image or does not push us to deepen what is happening.

The interesting thing is that when the "high path" is activated, we usually apply that level of processing to all incoming information related to the event. That is, we apply a more imprecise and general scheme to everything that, in one way or another, is related to the situation we perceive as distant.

Studies analyzing people's decisions regarding retirement saving suggest that although people know they should save more for the future, they spend a lot and save little. This is due to the fact that the pension is processed on the "high" path as it is perceived as something very distant. And everything related to this issue is processed in the same way, so we don't think it is necessary to take concrete action here and now but we just put it off. This is one of the effects of psychological distance.

The low path

If the events are closer in space and time, we feel identified with them or are likely to occur, we will activate the "low" path. This means that we will build representations that are as concrete as possible, complex, deconstructed and decontextualized. This is exactly what we do with all the important information in our life.

When something is relevant, it is usually a very concrete fact, so it extends to many areas of our life and we usually end up with a rather complex but disorganized idea of ​​what is happening, because we are exploring different options to try and find an explanation. satisfying.

If a relationship goes wrong, we will be so emotionally involved in what happens that we will process it according to the "low" path. It will therefore be difficult for us to take the necessary psychological distance and objectively reflect on the situation we are experiencing. All the events related to this relationship will crowd our minds generating chaos and confusion, but we will not be able to evaluate them correctly because emotions prevent us from doing so.

How to adjust the different levels of psychological distance?

Psychological distance manifests itself at different levels, each with a concrete effect on our behavior and emotions, a phenomenon studied by the Construal Level Theory. These levels can be adjusted to take a more objective attitude, analyze our cognitive biases and the level of emotional involvement in the situation. In most cases it is necessary to increase the psychological distance, but other times it is necessary to reduce it to have a more concrete and sensitive analysis of the problem.

- Social distance. The social distance is what exists between us and others and is shortened when we are able to put ourselves in the other's place and be empathetic. On the contrary, it stretches when we use more abstract and depersonalized language, or when we do not show ourselves receptive to his speech and do not validate his emotions.

- Time distance. The temporal distance is measured in terms of past, present and future. It has been shown that when we set shorter deadlines, we are more productive, less stressed and achieve better results. The psychological strategy for correctly managing temporal distance is to visualize the future. For example, if you are feeling anxious about a project you need to accomplish, imagine that you have already finished it. Focusing on immediate results will help you relax and get better results.

- Spatial distance. Spatial distance is one of the easiest to manipulate. For example, it has been shown that when you move an object away from you, your interest in it decreases, but if you get closer, your interest increases. It's a particularly cool diet trick, but putting distance between you and the person you're arguing with will also allow you to step away from the problem a bit.

- Experiential distance. Experiential distance is measured by the gap between what we imagine and expect and what we finally experience. The bigger this gap, the greater the frustration and anger. On the contrary, the smaller it is, the greater our satisfaction. The best way to manipulate this distance is to limit our expectations. Being willing to live experiences without having expectations is the best way to get the most out of experiential distance.

Each time you adjust a level, you reduce or increase the psychological distance, so you can get more involved in the situation or, conversely, take a more objective point of view. Depending on the situation and coping strategies, you can play with the different distances to make the best decisions at any time.

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