Beware Far Values

In the last four years I’ve posted often on construal level theory. First discovered in the context of how differently people think about the distant future, construal level theory says that people think either using a near (concrete) mode, or a far (abstract) mode, or some intermediate mix. In far mode we tend to assume things are further away in time, space, social distance, with fewer relevant categories that are each more uniform internally. In near mode we do the opposite. There are lots more correlates.

I’ve talked before a bit about how this biases our thoughts about the future, and on politics. Today I want to focus on a particularly important element: in far mode we emphasize basic values a lot more, relative to practical constraints; in near mode we do the opposite.

Consider some very near choices: if to scratch your nose, how soon to browse Facebook yet again, what to eat for lunch, or if to hit that snooze alarm again. Near mode could bias us toward paying too much attention to practical constraints in such choices, relative to basic values. But it is hard for me to see that we actually neglect basic values that much in such choices.

But if we basically get the practicality vs. values tradeoff right for near choices, and if we pay a lot more attention to basic values for far choices, then either basic values are in fact a lot more important for far choices, or we vastly over-emphasize basic values for far choices. And since I can’t see good reasons why basic values should in fact matter a lot more for far choices, I conclude that in far mode we are greatly biased to attend too much to basic values, and too little to practical constraints.

This certainly fits my more detailed opinions on large scale policy and the future. You have to pay attention to an awful lot of detail in order to figure out which policies are best, or what is likely to actually happen in the distant future. But most people seem to quickly form opinions on such topics using simple value associations. When they can identify a clear value association, people seem pretty willing to form opinions, which seems to me a vastly overconfident attitude.

Now when different people have opposing values on some topic, the average of their opinions isn’t necessarily too far in any one value direction. If some folks focus on the value of citizen freedom, while others focus on the value of reducing crime, we don’t necessarily get too much freedom or crime. It is when people largely share the same values that things seem to go the most wrong.

For example, when everyone agrees on the importance of medicine or education, or military defense, we get way too much of each of them. When futurists generally agree the democracy is good, we get too much confidence that nice futures will be democratic, or that non-democratic futures will be hells.

Really folks, think about all the details that are relevant for your ordinary near choices of when to knock off of work for the day, whether to plant a garden this year, or who to invite to a party. All those far choices of national policy have just as many if not more relevant details. And if you think about all the details relevant for guessing if you will like taking on a new task at work, realize that there are far more details relevant to deciding if you would like any particular distant future scenario. The world is complicated!

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  • Siddharth

    At the society level, far choices are policy choices. I wonder what could be categorized as far choices in the personal domain. Personal policies? Such as vegetarianism, no-alcohol, exercise regularly, etc.? I find it hard to believe that they could go wrong in the same way policy goes wrong. Too much exercise? I don’t see too many people with that problem.
    It might have to do with the fact that in the personal case, the same person executes the policy as the person who made the policy. So, he/she is forced to consider the practicality vs. values trade-off in the near mode. But in the case of public policy, people who make the policy almost never have to make the near mode choices involved in executing the policy. So should have policy-executors be policy-makers?

  • Romeo Stevens

    I’ve been heavily discounting far mode thoughts for a while now, I take this post as some evidence that I am correct in doing this.  I don’t think far mode is even about the territory.  It’s just for signalling what sorts of alliances you’d like to make.  This fits with emphasizing basic values.

  • RobS

    Not sure I follow this. Your examples of near choices are all trivial. What about: whether to join in bullying, whether to shoot at a burglar in your house, whether to take a bribe that’s on the table. Surely it’s very easy to neglect basic values when making near choices? In which case the premise that we usually get basic values v practical considerations right in near choices has not been demonstrated.

    • It might be easy, but can we say that it actually happens on average? Seems to me most people would in fact account a lot for their basic values in making such choices.

      • RobS

        I guess that seems debatable to me, at least insofar as we make a lot of decisions we regret, or that our “better” far-mode selves would not endorse.

      • “A lot” perhaps, but a large *fraction*?

      • What kind of fraction would you estimate? Or perhaps, in far-mode, how much would you pay to have an angel-on-the-shoulder program that prevents you from doing things you are expected to heavily regret?

        Since Disqus doesn’t make clear who I’m responding to, Robin, or RobS, or anyone else can give their answers.

      • Carl Shulman

        In immediate near decisions we eat unhealthy foods, don’t go to the gym, procrastinate instead of opening the 401(k) account with free starting contribution from one’s employer, get drunk the night before exams, have unprotected sex with sketchy characters leading to pregnancy or disease, drive home drunk, etc…

        Whereas at a far distance we endorse plans to avoid these outcomes by signing up for advance payroll deductions of our investment contributions, buying gym memberships, ensuring we don’t have tempting foods nearby, giving your car keys to someone else, etc. Paying attention to the long-term consequences of one’s action for oneself

        In these situations the bad consequences lie far in one’s future, or are probabilistic (most acts of unprotected sex, drunk driving, and so forth won’t lead to serious harm). And we observe that those with low time preference do better in income, life expectancy, well-being, etc, than those with high time preference.

        If there are individual differences in construal-level patterns, I suggest looking to see whether they are correlated with those life success measures and time preference.

      • It isn’t clear to me that these result from paying too much attention to practical constraints relative to basic values, instead of from choosing some basic values over others.

      • robertwiblin

        I came here to make exactly Carl’s point.

        Also point out that I think in near mode people are more selfish, in far mode, more concerned with others. If like me, you think more altruism would be helpful, that’s a good reason to push for extra far values.

      • robertwiblin

        What kinds of bad decisions in your own life have you made which were due to an excessive focus on basic values?

  • One dimension to consider, near choices are limited relative to far choices. So there is a bias experienced right away.  Moreover, near choices are at higher risk for sub-optimization. You think you are on the tallest hill, but if you walk down the hill and continue to seek out hills, you might find the taller one that escaped your observation when you were near focused.

  • Arch1

    I disagree that near mode choices generally strike a good balance between practical constraints and basic values.  Near mode choices often overvalue near term rewards over long term ones, and often therefore insufficiently consider basic values.  Take your snooze button example.  Hitting it multiple times on a given morning is almost a cliche.  How is such behavior aligned with basic values?

    A separate point:  On the far side, one reason practical considerations are given less relative weight is that they are hard to predict.  As you say, the world is complex, so it is extremely difficult to deal with and properly update the welter of possible combinations of circumstances, each with their associated  probabilities, which may bear on a given long term decision (the contrast with that beeping alarm could not be more stark).  Since the practical constraints are much fuzzier and more complex in far mode than in near mode, while one’s basic values are fairly well known in both modes, it seems natural for the latter to play a larger role in far mode.

    • Pshrnk

      Yep if near choices struck a good balance we would have fewer addicts.

  • R S

    “For example, when everyone agrees on the importance of health and medicine, we get way too much medicine.”
    Maybe, but why isn’t it the case that since everyone agrees on the importance of health and medicine we don’t get way too much medical research? Far values would seem to favor much more spending on research for cures, but we prefer to spend orders of magnitude more on things like long-term care that don’t change health outcomes too much.

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  • Guest

    Hmm.. the last two Robin posts have been a bit on the authoritarian side. First the crowding out effect of the most helpful comments as a direct insult to the readership, so let’s regulate/squelch, and now (my own summary), democratic peoples may lack the sophistication to understand the practical realities and complexities of modern policy-making and policy-executing and default to far/value-related heuristics… You better watch the throne, ‘Ye; Robin Hanson’s comin’ for ya. Not disagreeing with you sir, just wondering what is the impetus for this thrust, or am I extrapolating on noise. 


    • Robin Hanson

      The post on comments was by Rob.

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