Far Mode Overly Praised

Roughly speaking, in near mode we focus practically on acting in our local situation, while in far mode we talk about how people in general should act in more ideal socially approved ways. So while we should expect near mode to usually be the best mode for practical purposes, we should also expect social discussions of near-far to celebrate far mode. For example, an article on Psychological Distance: 10 Fascinating Effects of a Simple Mind Hack gives nine advantages of being in far mode:

1. Make challenging tasks seem easier 2. Generate self-insight 3. Become more persuasive 4. Gain emotional self-control … 6. Be true to yourself 7. Become more polite 8. Fire your creativity 9. Improve your self-control 10. Trigger wise thoughts

And only one disadvantage:

5. Beware the illusion of explanatory depth!

A similar idealistic distortion is found is this article that suggests we let our minds wander because wandering minds are more creative:

In one study, volunteers had to read extracts of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. … People’s minds wandered from the words for more than 20 per cent of the time. … A recent study asking people to report their state of mind at random intervals during the day – via a smartphone app – showed that their attention was wandering from the task at hand a whopping 47 per cent of the time. …

For a long time, … the ability to filter out distractions and focus on a task – dubbed executive control – was considered to lie behind smart thinking. … A host of studies have shown that people who can focus well tend to ace analytical problems: they are whizzes at arithmetic and verbal reasoning tasks, and often have a higher IQ. … Yet … while people with a high level of working memory are good at analytical problems, they tend to struggle on tasks that require flashes of inspiration. …. Various studies show that people with high working-memory capacity, and therefore good executive control, can find it more difficult to solve these problems than people who are more easily distracted. …

All participants were asked to take another crack at the [creativity] task. … Those whose minds had been wandering came up with, on average, 40 per cent more answers. … [Researchers] studied people who had written a published novel, patented an invention or had art shown at a gallery. In computer tests that required participants to screen out irrelevant information – latent inhibition tests – she found these high-achievers were less likely to disregard inconsequential details and focus on the task, compared with an average person. In other words, their minds more frequently wandered from the task at hand. …

Instead of forcing yourself to concentrate, the best approach when a deadline looms may be to loosen your grip and take a quick break. … People in a relaxed mood were more likely to find creative solutions to word puzzles. … Even listening to jokes helps. … you might want to flex your creativity when you feel most groggy. Early birds, for instance, find more original solutions late at night, while night owls do better early in the morning. … If all else fails, a stiff drink can lubricate the mind’s cogs. … By the same token, you should avoid coffee – since caffeine focuses your concentration. (more)

Gee, then why do schools tend to drill creativity out of their students, and why don’t employers like groggy drunk joking employees with wandering minds? Yes, there are some jobs where creativity increases productivity, but for most jobs an ability to focus, concentrate, and analyze helps more. Which is why caffeine is a lot more popular than alcohol on most jobs.

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  • How did you manage to equate an abstract, self-distanced perspective to “groggy drunk joking employees with wandering minds”?

    • The research links the two in validating the concept of abstract-construal level (or “far mode,” as Robin prefers)…. Except I haven’t seen any research showing that inebriation engenders the far mode. (Personal experience: THC is far; alcohol is near.)

      [See http://tinyurl.com/88d329b for an interpretation of political ideologies in terms of construal-level preferences.]

      • I’m not familiar with the area or terminology, but it still seems to me that psychologically distancing yourself from a task does not imply a lack of the “ability to focus, concentrate, and analyze”. The two appear to be orthogonal. 

      •  They’re conceptually orthogonal but empirically correlated. The relationship isn’t obvious. Whether the relationship is strong enough to warrant strong conclusions about the workplace may be another question. Robin summarizes the findings at http://tinyurl.com/cb936rm; I summarize the research in “Construal-level theory: Matching linguistic register to the case’s granularity” – http://tinyurl.com/7yqe7zp

  • andagain

    “Gee, then why do schools tend to drill creativity out of their students”

    What makes you assume that the schools care about how their graduates do in the workplace? What is in it for them?

  • Wonks Anonymous

    I should have waited a bit longer before posting in the open thread, but there is a construal-level theory researcher who seems to have fabricated data in a number of papers. You might want to go back and check to see which if any posts were based on his now suspect work: http://andrewgelman.com/2012/07/retractions-retractions-left-wing-enough-to-not-care-about-truth-if-it-confirms-their-social-theories-right-wing-enough-to-not-care-as-long-as-theyre-getting-paid-enough/

  • lump1

    Really, caffeine helps you focus and concentrate? For me, it makes me jump from thought to thought, so that I have to exert lots more willpower to stay on task. I always thought that the improved performance comes from greater alertness and creativity (and the mood boost), not the greater focus.

  • Siddharth

    Even the creative types need ‘creative moments’ only very few times. The vast majority of their work is done when they have to sit down, focus and polish their creative insights.

    Take Einstein: he thought of his principle of equivalence in 1907, from which he basically derived the whole of general relativity. But he had to work for about 8 years to figure out the required differential geometry and write down his famous field equations, which he published in 1915. Now, I’m not saying he didn’t require creative insights in between, but the vast majority of his 8 years was near-mode work. 

    • But I think one needs to alternate between creative and grinding moments in a ‘scale-free’ fashion. The big insights like the principle of equivalence are the ones we tend to observe, but interspersed throughout our daily grind are problems which require all manner of degrees of creative insight.

  • Mark M

    You ask, “Why do schools tend to drill creativity out of their students?”

    Because many teachers don’t understand that this is what they are doing.  It’s a side-effect – not a goal.  The teachers’ hands are often tied as well, limiting their options to nurture creativity.

    You ask “Why don’t employers like groggy drunk joking employees with wandering minds?”

    Because employers are liable for the actions of their employees while on the job.  Not treating an often-drunk employee as a problem condones that behavior and makes the employer culpable in the actions of that employee while on the job.  (As a side note:  I had one employer where a careful reading of the employee handbook requires employees to have exactly two alcoholic beverages druring their lunch break.  Another employer served alcohol at employee gatherings during normal work hours).

    There are many companies where employers would be more than happy to let employees drink on the job – in moderation – if it weren’t for the liability issues.

    I agree that most employers want their staff to focus on the task at hand.  Other employers are hampered by liability concerns.

    (Disclaimers:  I assume that employers would not be happy to allow drinking on the job if there were safety issues.  Also, in today’s world “drinking on the job” indicates a drinking problem that would best be addressed.  It wasn’t always this way and I don’t advocate encouraging drunkards to drink more.  Moderation is the key).

  • DanielLC

    “1. Make challenging tasks seem easier”
    Isn’t that a disadvantage? You’re more likely to waste time and money attempting tasks that you can’t complete.

  • I reference Robin in “The Last Word on Procrastination: An integration of ego-depletion theory, construal-level theory, and the irreversibility of writing.” (He’s “a prolific commentator.”) I fancy that my approach is a more balanced view of far and near than Robin’s on the one hand or MindHack’s on the other. Plus, you get a total picture of procrastination rendered in far mode! – http://tinyurl.com/7d2yh6x

  • Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi); that’s the Holy Grail for us extollers of far mode. (http://tinyurl.com/6pt9eq5)Flow is far.