Dark Is Far

In the dark, visual perception becomes less focused and detailed, leading to more abstract representations. … In three experiments, darkness triggered a more global perceptual and conceptual processing style than did brightness, regardless of whether the darkness was physically manipulated or primed. Additionally, two Implicit Association Tests (IATs) showed that darkness is more strongly associated with high-level construal than with low-level construal. … Eight IATs confirmed the implicit link between darkness and four dimensions [space, time, hypothetically, social] of psychological distance. …

Participants administered more intense shocks in a learning paradigm when the room was dimly rather than well lit and when the victim was in another rather than in the same room. … Darkness caused by dim lighting or by wearing sunglasses enhanced people’s sense of anonymity and in turn increased cheating and self-interested behavior in a dictator game. … Participants evaluated a fictitious employee more positively and were more willing to donate as unpaid volunteers when sitting in a dimly lit rather than a brightly lit room. (more)

Some obvious implications: We are more near in the rich modern world, with its ubiquitous lighting. We are more in far mode in winter and at night. Since leisure time tends to be spent more at night, we are in a more far mode then. Outdoor sporty leisure, however, tends to be more in near mode.

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  • tribsantos

    Professor,
    I thought you always said people were more self-interested in near mode, more altruistic in far mode. If dark is far, shouldn’t they be less inclined to cheating in a dictator game?

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley
  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Near-far isn’t the only effect of darkness – it also makes one feel less monitored by others.

  • Buck Farmer

    How does this relate to the Lark-Owl division in the human population?

    Owls supposedly are less productive, but more creative (I can’t for the life of me remember the source, but I’m gonna use as a working premise). If abstract pattern-generation is far, and concrete discrete practical work is near, then we might see the Lark-Owl productivity-creativity gap partially as a side-effect of light differences.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes, dark is far predicts that owls are more creative, and larks are better at detail work, which they seem to be.

  • Buck Farmer

    Robin, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the place of “anonymity” in both your near/far and forager/farmer dichotomies.

    I’d argue anonymity is far…in the sense that it often accompanies abstracting your counterparties as an amorphous “other.” Do we treat people as individuals because they treat us as an individual?

    Mass anonymity is a very novel experience evolutionarily…and I would argue that this novelty is why people are so instinctively uncomfortable with arms-length transactions (Pinker has written some on this). I’d say it fits neither within the forager nor the farmer paradigms, and is nonetheless a powerful force that should be factored into your predictions for the far future. Potentially powerful enough to swamp the forager/farmer distinction over the very long-run.

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