(Keep Your) Psychological Distance

(Keep Your) Psychological Distance

3 April 2020 0 By JuanParki

What is it? The perception of distance between ourselves and the mental representation of an object, event or action influences how we behave and think1. This can refer to spatial distance (is it geographically near or far?), temporal distance (is it now or in the future?), hypothetical distance (is it likely or unlikely to happen?) and social distance (does it happen to me, a friend or a stranger?). 

Representations which are close (near, soon, likely or me) tend to be ‘concrete’, whilst representations with high distance (far, distant, unlikely, someone else) are more likely ‘abstract’. Concrete representations are mostly concerned with the small sensory details of carrying out a behaviour, whilst abstract representations refer to ‘bigger picture’ values and concepts.  

Critically, the closer something is to us, the more emotional we feel about it2. For example, compare your emotional response to thinking about your dinner in abstract terms of how it will nourish your body (the beneficial impact of proteins on growth, vitamin contributions to immune system) versus dinner as a crispy hot pizza topped with melting cheese dripping onto your fingers (the concrete sensory characteristics of consumption).

With regard to Coronavirus,  ‘close’ and concrete elements such as dirty hands, sneezing and unclean door handles evoke a strong emotional response, whereas a ‘distant’ virus is seen more abstractly, such as characteristics of a pandemic, and probabilities of mortality in different age categories.  

Different types of construal are effective in motivating different behaviours. In the context of Covid-19, concrete messages will be most effective in prompting the immediate behaviour of hand-washing, whilst abstract sentiments are most useful in supporting longer-term self-control3 such as reducing the impulsive desire to go outside, and rebelling against social distancing rules.

How to use it:  

  1. Bring experiences closer, motivate immediate behaviour: Some individuals may fail to adhere to Covid-19 advice because they do not believe the virus will affect them or members of their social circle (socially and geographically distanced, or perhaps not in what they perceive to be the vulnerable group). Presenting ‘case studies’ of similar people who have been impacted by Coronavirus reduces this psychological distance, makes it feel more real and increases the immediacy with which people will act4
  2. See the bigger picture, maintain resolve: Evidence demonstrates abstract representations make us more likely to consider temptation as negative, because they mentally accentuate ‘bigger picture’ values – things that remain important to us over time5. In turn, this promotes self-control, and so is most relevant for behaviour which requires inhibiting action, such as restraining the urge to go out rather than stay home. We can evoke abstract representations by asking a person “why” they might want to engage in our target behaviour6.  
  3. Education is key: Research suggests just knowing about the effects of abstract and concrete representations helps us make better decisions7. Therefore, teaching people to think about the concrete outcomes of behaviour if they wish to act now, or abstract benefits if they wish to retain self-control, can support behavioural change at an individual level. (Concrete: virus is transmitted through contact with hard surfaces, therefore I need to wash my hands whenever I have been anywhere public; abstract: “step back and see the bigger picture” the future of my community, and my relationship within it,  depends on my staying at home, even when I am tempted to go out.)


1.        Trope, Y. & Liberman, N. Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance. Psychol. Rev. 117, 440–463 (2010). 

2.        Eyal, T., Liberman, N., Trope, Y. & Walther, E. The Pros and Cons of Temporally Near and Distant Action. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 86, 781–795 (2004). 

3.        Fujita, K., Trope, Y., Liberman, N. & Levin-Sagi, M. Construal Levels and Self-Control. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 90, 351–367 (2006). 

4.        Borovoi, L., Rezlescu, C. & Vlaev, I. The psychological construal of health behaviors Psychologie cognitif sur les niveaux de représentation des conduites de santé. 223–230 (2017). doi:10.1016/j.erap.2017.05.001 

5.        Fujita, K. & Carnevale, J. J. Transcending Temptation Through Abstraction: The Role of Construal Level in Self-Control. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. (2012). doi:10.1177/0963721412449169 

6.        Fujita, K. & Roberts, J. C. Promoting prospective self-control through abstraction. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 46, 1049–1054 (2010). 

7.        Macgregor, K. E., Carnevale, J. J., Dusthimer, N. E. & Fujita, K. Knowledge of the Self-Control Benefits of High-Level Versus Low-Level Construal. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 112, 607–620 (2017).