In the Eye of the Beholder

The science of social perception.

Do Desirable Places Seem Closer?

Vegas, Baby!

In the film "Swingers," Trent (Vince Vaughan) decides that nothing will lift the spirits of his mopey, lovesick friend Mike (Jon Favreau) like a quick jaunt to Las Vegas. With visions of a night of debauchery dancing in their heads, they jump into their car in Los Angeles with cries of "Vegas, baby!" The problem, of course, is that L.A. is four hours from Las Vegas. The scene cuts to the two of them several hours later, glumly slouched in their seats, minds numbed by the unending highway, energy totally sapped.

According to recent research by Adam Alter and Emily Balcetis of New York University, Trent and Mike may have fallen for a phenomenon that afflicts all of us: desirable places are perceived as physically closer than they actually are. In one study, the researchers stopped people walking on the campus of Princeton University and asked five questions: 1) Where are you coming from? 2) Where are you headed? 3) How much do you like your point of origin? 4) How much do you like your destination? 5) What proportion of the distance between your point of origin and your destination have you covered so far?

The latter three questions are all subjective estimates, but the researchers had one objective measure as an ace up their sleeve: the program Gmaps Pedometer. Using this program, they were able calculate the exact distance from location to location on the Princeton campus including the spot where the survey took place. In other words, they could objectively calculate the degree to which participants were overestimating or underestimating the remaining portion of their journey. At the same time, they could assess whether the desirability of the destination influenced the degree of overestimation or underestimation.

Alter and Balcetis found that, indeed, participants who were more excited about their destination than their origin overestimated how far they had traveled; those who were more excited about their origin than their destination underestimated how far they had traveled. Those who felt equally positively about both locations gave the most accurate estimates. In another study, the researchers provided additional evidence for this phenomenon by manipulating the desirability of the destination. Pedestrians on the Princeton campus were approached and were either led to think about the positive qualities or negative qualities of New York City. Then they were asked how far away New York City was from Princeton, New Jersey. They were also asked to rate how vividly they could picture New York City. The researchers found that those who were randomly assigned to view New York positively considered New York nearer to their current location than those assigned to view New York negatively. Moreover, the researchers showed that the more vividly New York was pictured, the closer it seemed.

On the one hand, this phenomenon is interesting on its face; one wouldn't necessarily think that people's estimates of space and distance could be so easily - and systematically - pushed and pulled in different directions. On the other hand, it is also interesting to consider the potential implications for decision making. To what extent does this phenomenon extend beyond actual space to metaphorical space? Could it be that even metaphorical "journeys" operate similarly? For example, if you view saving up money for a vacation as a "journey", does the fabulousness of the vacation influence how "within reach" it is perceived to be? If so, might there be a bitter irony whereby people are less likely to do the hard work of saving the more attractive they consider the vacation? ("Why not spend a little money now? After all, I don't have that much farther to go to reach my savings goal.") More generally, might the illusory nearness of desired goals lead people to devote less thought and effort than they should to the pursuit of those goals?

Reference:
Alter, AL., & & Balcetis, E. (2011). Fondness makes distance grow shorter: Desired locations seem closer because they seem more vivid. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 16-21.

Jason Plaks, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

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