Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Distance From an Event Affects How You Deal With It

You focus on the causes of distant events, but the consequences of near ones.

Imagine that you have been having a stressful time at work. Your boss has been angry about the performance of your group, and you are afraid you might lose your job.  Losing your job would affect all aspects of your life including whether you can keep your home.  As a result, you start having trouble sleeping. You spend hours at night thinking about the situation, and you get to work tired.

 What should you do to help yourself? 

 You might consider trying to fix the cause of the problem—the stress.  You could take a meditation class and learn to control your stress.  Alternatively, you could treat the symptom and take a sleeping pill or buy a book on how to get a good night’s sleep and follow its instructions.

 What you choose to do in this situation depends on a lot on how you end up thinking about it.  If you are focused on the cause of the problem, then you will probably focus on fixing the stress.  If you are focused on the consequence of the problem, then you are more likely to find ways to get some sleep.

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 An interesting paper by SoYon Rim, Jochim Hansen, and Yaacov Trope in the March, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the distance between you and the event will affect whether you focus on what is causing the event or what the outcomes are from that event, which in turn influences how you deal with it.

 For example, in one experiment, participants were asked to spend five minutes imagining imagine how their lives would be either tomorrow or one year from now.  This task has been used before to create a sense of distance.  Then, the participants were shown eight different events (like getting a cavity in their teeth) and they had to generate as many causes of the event (like eating too much sugar) and as many consequences of the event (like tooth pain) as they could.  People thinking about their lives in the near future were able to generate (slightly) more consequences of the events than causes.  People concentrating on the future generated significantly more causes than consequences. 

 Another study in this series showed that people thought about causes of events more for events involving other people than for themselves.  They thought more about consequences for events involving themselves than for events involving others.  The difference between self and other is another way of thinking about psychological distance.

 This difference in focus influences the way people think about how to deal with events.  In another study, participants first wrote about their lives either the next day or in a year.  Then, they focused on a scenario like the one that I described earlier in which they were suffering stress at work or school, and that was affecting their ability to sleep.  They were given two possible behaviors they could engage in.  One was focused on the cause (like taking a yoga class to relieve stress).  A second was focused on the outcome (like taking a class to help learn to sleep better).  Participants thinking about the near future selected the behavior that affected the consequence 62% of the time.  Participants thinking about the distant future selected the behavior that affected the cause 62% of the time. 

 Putting this all together, then, when you focus on the near future, you are more concerned with the consequences of events than with causes.  When we talk about getting some distance from an event, we really mean that it is easier to think about the whole context from a distance.  As a result, we are better able to focus on the causes of something rather than the symptoms when we are able to hold it at arm’s length.

 If you find yourself focusing on the symptoms in your own life, it can be useful to find a way to create some distance.  Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to imagine that the event is happening to someone else.  Pretend that it involves someone else’s life and ask yourself the recommendations that you would give to them if they were dealing with those issues.  Then, follow your own advice.

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 Check out my books Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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