Sandra Geitz shares her thoughts with us about “Distancing our Futures” in this blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Along a similar theme to the last post, I’m exploring enhancing and enabling futures thinking. This post is concerned with Bridging Psychological Distance, from Rebecca Hamilton’s HBR article this week, and how this may impact facilitating foresight.
What is psychological distance?
People directly experience only the here and now. It is egocentric. In order to think about the future, another person’s perspective, remote locations and/or understand hypothetical options, people need to transcend their self, or their individual present experiences. This is termed by psychologists, Nira Liberman and Yaacoc Trope as overcoming psychological distance. People are able to do this, to varying degrees of ability, by creating distant abstractions, or mental constructs.
Psychological distance can occur as one or in several dimensions. Social distance is the gap between yourself and other people. Temporal distance is the gap between the present experience and the future. Spatial distance occurs between your present location and some far away distance. Experiential distance is the gap between one’s direct experience and an hypothetical or imaginary situation.
Why may psychological distance be important to foresight?
Liberman and Trope’s research shows that the farther removed an object is from direct experience, the more abstract one represents the distant object. Also, their research shows that each of the four psychological distances are cognitively related to each other, that they similarly influence and are influenced by the level of abstraction, and that they similarly affect they way we preference, predict, perceive and take action.
If the psychological distance is large, we tend to think in more abstract ways; we focus on the big picture, the why or purpose of our choices, and the desirability of our options. Large distances and abstract language are associated with power and visionary thinking.
When the psychological distance is small, we think in more concrete terms,; we are focused on the details, the how and what of our choices, and the feasibility of each option. Small distances are synonymous with familiar, concrete tasks. From this research, Hamilton advises that the optimal strategy is adjusting the psychological distance to suit the needs of the particular task at hand.
Social distance can be reduced by taking into account the perspectives of others, employing the ability to step into another’s shoes. Similarly, social distance can also be reduced by reducing temporal distance, through immediate task deadlines, or by meeting others onsite, reducing spatial gaps.
Temporal distance can be reduced by adopting milestones or internal deadlines, to reduce overwhelm of the distant project completion, or visualising the future state.Temporal distance can be reduced through less social and/or spatial distance, such as meeting with stakeholders of the large project task.
Spatial gaps are reduced by face-to face meetings and travelling onsite. And experiential distances can be minimised via role plays, prototyping experiences to enable more concrete thinking or action to occur. Similarly, experiential distance can be reduced via social distance, by peer group word of mouth recommendations to encourage us to take similar actions.
However, if big-picture thinking, creativity or authority is the desired goal, increasing social distance by using abstract language helps. Deploying greater spatial distance by moving meetings offsite or to open, lofty and spacious surroundings can assist expansive thinking. Increasing temporal distance for long-term planning horizons can encourage more ambitious goal-setting. And, increasing experiential distance with hypothetical questions and imagery may encourage a broader range of scenarios to be considered.
How can we use greater psychological distance to expand our futures options?
How might we minimize distances to enable concrete actions towards our preferred futures?