Near-Far Summary

I’ve devoted a lot of attention on this blog over the last year to near-far effects, officially “Construal Level Theory.”  My summary: all near aspects tend to bring other near aspects to mind, and all far aspects tend to bring other far aspects to mind.  The aspects:


Its authors, Trope and Liberman, have just published an advanced review of the subject, which I heartily recommend. They summarize:

The fact that something happened long ago does not necessarily mean that it took place far away, that it occurred to a stranger, or that it is improbable. Nevertheless, as the research reviewed here demonstrates, there is marked commonality in the way people respond to the different distance dimensions. [Construal level theory] proposes that the commonality stems from the fact that responding to an event that is increasingly distant on any of those dimensions requires relying more on mental construal and less on direct experience of the event. … [We show] that (a) the various distances are cognitively related to each other, such that thinking of an event as distant on one dimension leads one to thinking about it as distant on other dimensions, (b) the various distances influence and are influenced by level of mental construal, and (c) the various distances are, to some extent, interchangeable in their effects on prediction, preference, and self-control.

Since we are more idealistic in far mode, our ideals favor and admire far more than near.  Trope and Liberman agree:

It is worth noting that both collective and personal human development are associated with traversing increasingly greater distances. The turning points of human evolution include developing tools, which required planning for the future; making function-specific tools, which required considering hypothetical alternatives; developing consciousness, which enabled the recognition of distance and perspective taking; developing language, which enabled forming larger and more complex social groups and relations; and domestication of animals and plants, which required an extended temporal perspective. Human history is associated with expanding horizons: traversing greater spatial distances (e.g., discovering new continents, space travel), forming larger social groups (families vs. cities vs. states vs. global institutions), planning and investing in the more distant future, and reaching farther back into the past. Human development in the first years of life involves acquiring the ability to plan for the more distant future, consider possibilities that are nonpresent, relate to and take the perspective of more distant people (from self-centeredness to acknowledging others, from immediate social environment to larger social groups). Although the areas of evolution, history, and child development have different time scales, research in these domains seems to converge on the notion that transcending the present requires and is enabled by the human capacity for abstract mental representation.

The human mind is amazingly powerful, and our far capacities are essential to our powers. But while far minds offer flexibility, perspective, and self-control to enable civilizations, far minds are also more deluded and hypocritical. By becoming more far, civilized humans have become all the more: homo hypocritus.

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  • Khoth

    What determined which things went where in your boxes of coloured words? I’m surprised to see math in near and abstract in far, for example.

    • Silas Barta

      Ditto. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

      • billswift

        I don’t know about others, but when I think of math my immediate visualization/reaction is of myself working a problem – which is pretty near.

      • billswift

        On further consideration, I think your confusion is between the concept of math in a person’s mind and the definition of mathematics. Don’t feel alone though – that is one reason Rand’s “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” is the next thing to worthless; it is a book length example of that confusion.

      • Silas Barta

        billswift- My question was “What determined which things went where in your boxes of coloured words?”, not the thing about math. (I can’t argue about a math classification until I know what the heck RobinHanson means by “near” and far” … I still ignore every discussion that’s grounded in this categorization.

        Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

      • Khoth

        From what I can tell, it’s that people are more likely to prefer/think about/decide using/whatever the things in the “Far” category when thinking about situations distant in time/place/etc, and vice-versa for the others. At least some of them seem to be backed by experimental evidence.

      • mjgeddes

        There are different types of math. I would place math such as probability theory and decision is being near. I would place math such as categorization and information theory as far. See the pattern? Alegbra is near. Set theory is far. Program code is near. Ontology/Domain models are far.

        The cognitive blindness of you Less Wrong folks has completely bamboozled you all. Bayes is not the foundation of rationality. You only believe it is because your minds are obviously tuned to near mode and you don’t understand far mode.

        I’ve told you all once, I’ve told you all a thousand times, categorization (far mode) is the real foundation of rationality, Bayes is just a special case. The Ocaam prior is uncomputable, and approximations such as Monte Carlo methods don’t scale. This is clearly seen in the game of Go, where the Monte Carlo methods now produce a strong game for the scaled down boards, but don’t scale to the full sized boards (19×19). Why? Because no non-sentient mechnical (Bayesian) method can ever approximate the Ocaam priors – only categorization/far mode/sentience/analogy can do it. You guys just don’t get it.

      • gwern0

        > This is clearly seen in the game of Go, where the Monte Carlo methods
        now produce a strong game for the scaled down boards, but don’t scale to
        the full sized boards (19×19).

        Monte Carlo methods are working just fine on 19×19, if you bother to check. Won’t be more than another decade or two before Go goes the way of chess.

      • mjgeddes

        The Go programs now produce a strong game on the 19×19 board as well, but are still a long way from the grandmaster level.  And even if what you say is true (Go gets mastered by an expert system), it would only show that Go was not AGI complete.  My original comments stand.

        In fact, just recently, a post on ‘Less Wrong’ pointed to a paper stongly hinting that probablity theory is merely a special case of algorithmic information theory.

        The paper seems to say that probabilities can be converted to complexities.

        “Conditional probabilities between variables become conditional complexities between strings”

        Since complexity and similarity are the fundamental metrics of algorithmic information theory, and categorization is the correct method to operate on these metrics (complexity and similarity), this appears to confirm what I’ve long been claiming on this blog. 

         Bayes/probablity is not the true foundation of rationality, but categorization/algorithmic information theory is.

    • Robin Hanson

      This post is mainly about a link to “an advanced review on the subject.” Wouldn’t you expect to look there to find the sources for details mentioned in such a post? What do you want, a huge sign that says “FOLLOW THE LINK TO LEARN MORE”?

      • Khoth

        What I want is a journal subscription, it seems. Still, I found this, which outlines experiments that cover a lot of the cases in your lists (although I can’t seem to find anything for several of the puzzling ones on your list)

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  • Michael Bishop

    The second link (on the word “summarized”) is broken because it is listed twice.

  • Susan

    This strikes me as not dissimilar to the work of Carol Gilligan and other feminist ethicists, who question the value of ethical systems based on abstract reasoning.

    That said, I’m always suspicious of the value of setting up dichotomies.

  • TGGP

    I’m thinking of starting a Near Party. Any suggestions for insults to lob at Far-heads?

    • Karl Smith

      I have only been vaguely paying attention to the near-far posts but reading the list I was shocked at how “Near” I am.

  • jedermaann

    Heidegger’s distinction in Being and Time between present-to-hand (e.g. thinking abstractly about a door knob) and ready-to-hand (actually using the doorknob) fits nicely into this distinction too, particularly as he says that the abstract doorknob retreats when we use it, i.e. the two modes of thinking are to some extent incommensurable. Incommensurable in the same way that Hamlet lamented economy in a moral context: “thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”, and in the same way that no-one talks about prices at art galleries.

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