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Seeing the Bigger Picture Can Promote Self-Control

How does psychological distance influence motivation?

Source: By Georging at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Psychological distance involves mentally separating oneself from the immediate situation and taking a broader perspective or seeing the big picture. Psychological distancing allows greater flexibility and control in our thinking and behavior (Shapiro, 2016). As the saying goes, “it's all in how you think about it.”

The concept of psychological distance is central to self-control. Self-control requires people to make decisions consistent with distal goals when tempted by more immediate rewards. Exercising self-control requires ignoring the attraction of short-term temptations in order to pursue other long-term goals. Resolving goal conflicts through self-control is an important component in achieving and maintaining a healthy life.

A broader perspective allows us to consider multiple aspects of a situation. As we get psychologically closer to a situation, our choices are increasingly influenced by more specific concerns. From a distant perspective one sees the forest, but from a proximal perspective one sees trees. This difference in perspective influences the very meaning we assign to events. From a distance, the specific details of any decision are likely to fade away.

From a distant future, individuals commit themselves to options with outcomes that are highly desirable but less feasible. However, for the near future individuals prefer options with outcomes that are less desirable but highly feasible (Trope and Liberman, 2014).

For example, a task like “maintaining good physical health” might be associated with high-level outcomes like the joy of healthy lifestyle. However, there are also low-level outcomes associated with this task, such as going to gym, avoiding our favorite snack, and so on. When considering a job offer, we focus on the value of receiving a job. And we are less concerned with the amount of time and effort one has to invest in the job. The feasibility of the job is secondary to its desirability. Thus, if a job is desirable, we will consider accepting it regardless of the feasibility concerns.

Thinking about a decision in high-level (long-term goals) is related to why, and low-level (a narrow) is related “how” questions (Baumeister and Tierney, 2012). Why questions encourage long-term thinking or desirability of pursuing an action. In contrast, how questions bring the mind down to the present to consider the goal’s attainability or feasibility. Thus, from a distant perspective, choices are made based primarily on global concerns (why), whereas from a proximal perspective, those priorities are weakened and even reversed as local concerns (how) become more prominent.

The why questions can aid people in maintaining a new habit (e.g., daily exercise or diet). It helps them to remember why they are doing an activity. Self-control becomes easier when people ask themselves why they are doing an activity rather than how they are doing it (Fujita et al., 2012). As Nietzsche remarked, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Adopting a self-distanced perspective can help us face negative emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them (Kross and Ayduk, 2008). Emotions are partial in the sense that they are focused on a narrow target. The passage of time normally broadens our perspective, and we feel relief at seeing a bigger picture. This explains why individuals reason more wisely and think more creatively when solving problems for other people. For better or worse, thinking about the matter from the more distant perspective makes it easier to put complicating details aside and focus on what seems most important.

In sum, when our focus is too narrow, it can lead us to miss the big picture. A wider scope would help us capture and integrate important details. If we want our choices to reflect our abstract values, it’s a good idea to choose or imagine choosing from a more distant perspective (Ross & Gilovich 2015).


Baumeister RF and Tierney J (2011) Willpower. New York: The Penguine Press

Ross, L., & Gilovich, T. (2015). The wisest one in the room: How you can benefit from social psychology's most powerful insights. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2008). Facilitating adaptive emotional analysis: Distinguishing distanced-analysis of depressive experiences from immersed-analysis and distraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 924–938.

Liberman N, Trope Y. Trends Cogn Sci. 2014 Jul;18(7):364-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2014.03.001. Epub 2014 Apr 10.

Fujita, K., & Carnevale, J. J. (2012). Transcending temptation through abstraction the role of construal level in self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science,21(4), 248-252

Shapiro Daniel (2016) Negotiating the nonnegotiable: how to resolve your most emotionally charged conflicts? NY: Viking

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117, 440-463.

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