Tag Archives: NearFar

Individualism Is Far

Four studies show that an independent self-view is associated with abstract representations of future events and with perceiving these events as happening in the more distant future, whereas an interdependent self-view is associated with concrete representations of future events and with perceiving these events as happening in the more proximal future. …

Individuals with an accessible independent self-view (a characteristic of members of most Western cultures) place high values on self-reliance and autonomy. They strive toward being unique, different, and separate from others. Of key importance to the independents is the “inner core” of the self—internal attributes and traits that are enduring and invariant over time and context. In contrast, individuals with a more accessible interdependent self-view (a characteristic of members of many Eastern cultures) value relationships with others and interpersonal harmony. They view the self as part of a social group and strive toward blending and fitting in. …

There are reasons to believe that the two distinct self- views are associated with different levels of construal and psychological distances. First, interdependents are concerned about relationship harmony and are sensitive to the interconnectedness between people and events. From this perspective, it is both desirable and necessary that they pay close attention to the immediate environment to ensure that relationship harmony is attained and preserved. This attention to the “here” and “now” likely prompts a low-level construal and its corresponding proximal temporal perspective. Second, feelings of agency and control may also lead to higher construal levels among those with an independent self-view. (more)

This suggests that westerners tend to think more in a far view, which suggests that they are more idealistic, plan further into the future, are more socially inclusive, and think more via analogy.

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The Poor Wore Color

A year ago I posted on how ancient buildings are usually depicted as colorless, even though they were brightly colored, and suggested this is because we think about the distant past in far mode. I’ve argued similarly about future images and colors.

We also tend to think of the clothes of the past poor as colorless; here are some typical images:

ColorlessGirls

ColorlessBoysBut not only did the poor smile, they wore a lot of color:

“Threads of Feeling” is an exhibition of the thousands of textile tokens left with the children at London’s Foundling Hospital from the middle to late 18th century. The 3-by-4-inch fabric swatches are the largest collection of 18-century common textiles from Britain, preserved for a heartbreaking reason. In 1739, wealthy patrons created the Foundling Hospital, a nice name for a large orphanage, to adopt and take care of abandoned babies being left at churches and on sidewalks across London. This orphanage took in thousands of babies left at its doors from 1739 to 1770, with the hope that mothers would ultimately return to claim their children if their monetary circumstances changed. So when the mothers left their babies, they often attached a small fabric swatch to identify the child. Often, the swatches were cut from the mother’s clothing, and included ribbons, embroidery and brightly colored materials that represent the textiles of the poor in 18th-century Britain.

FoundlingHospitalCloth

Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries. The men who chronicled life in London rarely described the attire of poor women; when they did, the colors of smut and sewage seemed to cloud their eyes and words. But the women, by and large illiterate, lived life in florals, needlepoint and intricately dyed fabrics. John Styles, curator of the exhibition, said 18th-century textiles of the poor were rarely preserved, because most peasants sold old fabrics and clothes to be made into paper. …

FoundlingHospital

Since the practice of leaving children at hospitals was so common, many historians once believed wrongly that women and parents were less attached to their children. Indeed, narratives of hardened mothers abandoning their children were documented in texts at the time, making children seem dispensable. But what illiterate women couldn’t chronicle in books about life in London, they could weave into carefully crafted tokens of love for their infants. Some mothers illustrated enduring love with hearts and butterflies, symbols of innocence that displayed their deep attachment to their children. The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children. Of the 16,282 infants admitted to the hospital, only 152 children were reclaimed. (more)

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Rich Is Far

[We hypothesized that] reminders of (a great deal of) money facilitate global, abstract mental construals … [while] reminders of expenditure or a little money should trigger more concrete mental representations. … Participants were primed with money or money-unrelated concepts. Money primes caused a preference for abstract over concrete action identifications (experiment 1), instigated the formation of broader categories (experiment 2), and facilitated the identification of global (vs. local) aspects of visual patterns (experiment 3). This effect extended to consumer judgments: money primes caused a focus on central (vs. peripheral) aspects of products (experiment 4) and increased the influence of quality of parent brands in evaluations of brand extensions. Priming with a little money (experiment 3) or expenditures (experiment 5) did not trigger abstract construals, indicating that the association between money and resources drives the effect. (more)

We’ve long known that power tends to induce far mode. So now we can say that the rich and powerful tend to think in a more far mode. That includes the entire world, since the world has been getting richer and more powerful. This plausibly explains why our “moral circles” have continued to widen over time, and helps us see why our era’s thinking is an especially deluded “dreamtime.”

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What About The Future Matters?

The future of 2050 might be different in many ways if, for example, climate change were mitigated, abortion laws relaxed, marijuana legalized, or the power of different religious groups changed. Which of the following types of differences matter most to you? To most people?

  • Dysfunction: murder, serious assault, disease, poverty, gender inequality, rape, homelessness, suicide, prostitution, corruption, burglary, fear of crime, forced immigration, gangs, terrorism, global warming.
  • Development: technological innovation, scientific progress, major scientific discoveries, volunteering, social welfare organizations, community groups, education standards, science education.
  • Warmth: warm, caring, considerate, insensitive, unfriendly, unsympathetic.
  • Morality: honest, trustworthy, sincere, immoral, deceitful, unfaithful.
  • Competence: capable, assertive, competent, independent, disorganized, lazy, unskilled.
  • Conservation: respect for tradition, self-discipline, obedience, social order, being moderate, national security, family security, being humble.
  • Self-transcendence: honesty, social justice, equality, helpful, protect environment, meaning in life.
  • Openness to change: independence, exciting life, enjoying life, freedom, a varied life, being daring, creativity,
  • Self-enhancement: social power, being successful, ambition, pleasure, wealth, social recognition.

In fact, most people can hardly be bothered to care about the distant future world as a whole, and to the extent they do care, a recent study (details below) suggests that the main thing they care about from the above list is how warm and moral future folks will be. That is, people hardly care at all about future poverty, freedom, suicide, terrorism, crime, poverty, homelessness, disease, skills, laziness, or sci/tech progress. They care a bit more about self-enhancement (e.g., success, pleasure, wealth). But mostly they care about benevolence (warmth & morality, e.g., honesty, sincerity, caring, and friendliness).

Now this study only looked at eight future changes, half of them religious, and I’m not that happy with the way they did their statistics. So there’s a slim hope better studies will get different results. But overall this is pretty sad; like us, future folks will actually care about many more things than their benevolence, and so they may well lament our priorities in helping them.

This result is what one should expect if people think about the far future in a very far mode, and if the main distinct function of far views is to make good social impressions. To the extend they have any opinions about the distant future, people focus overwhelmingly on showing their support for standard social norms of good behavior. They reassure their associates of their support for good norms by showing them that making people nicer according to such norms is the main thing they care about regarding the distant future.

Those promised details: Continue reading "What About The Future Matters?" »

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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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Social Norms Are Far

We see social norms as more relevant when predicting the average behavior of a group, relative to predicting an individual’s behavior:

In judgments of morally relevant behaviors, forecasters estimated that a randomly selected individual (e.g., a student) would act more selflessly (e.g., give to charity) than would the population from which the individual was drawn (e.g., the student body). … When considering how an individual will behave, people give weight to an individual-level force on behavior: what an individual’s moral conscience would lead one to do. When considering a population, forecasters give more emphasis to a group-level force on behavior: social norms and pressures. … Individuals were [also] forecast as more likely than populations to perform behaviors that emerge primarily because of an individual-level force—a person’s will—but not behaviors that are encouraged by social norms. (more)

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Middle-Age Is Near

Tali Sharot says we are optimistic because we under-respond to bad news, an effect weakest for the middle-aged, explaining why they are more pessimistic:

People of all age groups changed their beliefs more in response to good news, and they discounted bad news. Even more surprising was the finding that kids and elderly people both showed more of a bias than college students. …

From about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s. (Middle-age crisis, anyone?) Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. …

Andrew Oswald … controlled for people being born in better times, marital status, education, employment status, income: The age pattern persisted. Even more surprising, the pattern held strong even though Oswald did not control for physical health. … Oswald tested half a million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. …

While women reach the bottom of the happiness barrel at 38.6 years on average, men reach it more than a decade later — at 52.9 years [but 44.5 in the U.S.] … Americans have been growing less happy since 1900. In Europe, however, happiness has been increasing steadily since 1950, after 50 years of decline. (more)

OK, but that just pushes the question back: why do middle-aged folks respond the most to bad news? An obvious functional explanation comes to my mind: In the tradeoff between (near) beliefs that support good personal decisions and (far) beliefs that present a good image to others, personal decisions matter more for the middle-aged. In general, good personal decisions matter more for those who who are more dominant, more in the productive prime of their life, and more past the early ages where long term bonds are formed, and before elderly dependence on others.

This explains the later male unhappiness peak, the US/Europe trends matching their rising/falling world dominance, and also why pretty people are more selfish and conformist. After all, happy is far, and conformity is near.

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Death Is Very Sad

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a simple but heart-breaking story of a dying man. In this passage, Ivan finds it very hard to translate his far outside view about his death to a near inside view:

Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

Such was his feeling.

“If I had to die like Caius I would have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. and now here it is!” he said to himself. “It can’t be. It’s impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?”

He could not understand it, and tried to drive this false, incorrect, morbid thought away and to replace it by other proper and healthy thoughts. But that thought, and not the thought only but the reality itself, seemed to come and confront him. (more)

We could each gain great insight into ourselves if only we could consistently take the features we believe apply to many folks around us, and honestly ask ourselves if they apply to us as well. Folks around us are often boring, failures, irritating, misguided, vain, and, yes, dying. Are we?

In Tolstoy’s story the people around Ivan overwhelming cared about how Ivan’s death would affect them. They were eager to appear like the proper sort of caring person, but in fact didn’t care much. To comfort themselves, they preferred to blame Ivan for his problems, and refused to directly acknowledge that he was in fact dying.

Reading reviews of the story, I find that some (e.g.) also prefer to blame Ivan for his sad death. Tolstoy presents Ivan as a flawed person living a flawed life, and reviewers seem to think that Tolstoy was saying this is why his death was sad. Which seems to me to miss the point: no matter how your life went your death will be sad, especially since most around you will be focused more on how your death affects them than on how it affects you.

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Silly Mayans

In my morning paper, today’s possible apocalypse was mentioned in five comics, but no where else. I’ve heard many mention the issue of the last few weeks, but mostly mocking it; none seem remotely concerned. Why so many mentions of something so few believe? To mock it of course – to enjoy feeling superior to fools who take such things seriously.

So are we ridiculing only those who fear apocalypse based on ancient predictions, or all who fear apocalypse? Alas, as I’ve discussed before, it seems we ridicule all of them:

On average, survivalists tend to display undesirable characteristics. They tend to have extreme and unrealistic opinions, that disaster soon has an unrealistically high probability. They also show disloyalty and a low opinion of their wider society, by suggesting it is due for a big disaster soon. They show disloyalty to larger social units, by focusing directly on saving their own friends and family, rather than focusing on saving those larger social units. And they tend to be cynics, with all that implies. (more)

Over the years I’ve met many folks who say they are concerned about existential risk, but I have yet to see any of them do anything concrete and physical about it. They talk, write, meet, and maybe write academic papers, but seem quite averse to putting one brick on top of another, or packing away an extra bag of rice. Why?

Grand disaster is unlikely, happens on a large scope, and probably far away in time, all of which brings on a very far view, wherein abstract talk seems more apt than concrete action. Also, since far views are more moral and idealistic, people seem especially offended about folks preparing selfishly for disaster, and especially keen to avoid that appearance, even at the expense of not preparing.

This seems related to the wide-spread rejection of cryonics in a world that vastly overspends on end of life medicine; more folks pay a similar amount to launch their ashes into space than try to extend life via cryonics. The idea of trying to avoid the disaster of death by returning in a distant future also invokes a far view, wherein we more condemn selfish acts and leaving-the-group betrayal, are extra confident in theories saying it won’t work, and feel only weak motivations to improve things.

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Paternalism can be kind, just not to present-you

You may want to file this under ‘incredibly obvious’, but I haven’t seen it noted elsewhere.

Liberals and libertarians have an instinctive aversion to paternalism. Their key objection is: how can anyone else be expected to know what is good for you, better than you do?

This is usually true, but it neglects a coherent justification for many paternalistic policies that doesn’t require that anyone know more than you. The paternalist could be fine with their policy being bad for ‘present-you’ if it benefits ‘future-you’ even more. But don’t you care about your future self’s welfare too? Sure, but maybe not as much as they do, relative to your current welfare!

Confusion about the intent of the paternalistic policy is generated by the fact that it is natural to say “this policy exists to help you”, without noting which instance of ‘you’ it is meant to help – you now, you tomorrow, you in ten years’ time, and so on.

While this justification would make sense especially often where people engaged in ‘hyperbolic discounting’ and as a result were ‘time inconsistent’, it does not rely on that. All it requires is that,

  • there are things you could do now that would benefit your future self, at the expense of your present self, and;
  • the paternalists’ ‘altruistic’ discount rate for the target’s welfare is lower than the discount rate the target has for their own welfare.

The first is certainly true, while the latter is often true in my experience.

In the near-far construal theory often used on this blog, us-now and immediate gratification are both ‘near’, while ourselves in the future, other people, and other people in the future are all ‘far’. In far mode we will want to encourage other folks to act toward their future selves in ways our far view thinks they ought to – usually patiently.

More intuitively: it’s easier to stick to a commitment to help a friend stay on their diet, than it is to stay to our diet ourselves. We don’t enjoy seeing our friends go without ice cream, but we like to see them reach their and our idealised goals even more. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.” You could add that we all have strength enough to bear the delayed gratification of others.

If a paternalist really does have a lower discount rate in this way, they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s future self: preventing suicide, reducing smoking, encouraging exercise, requiring people to save for emergencies and retirement, and so on. I often find these policies distasteful, but as I support a moral discount rate of zero (on valuable experiences), and almost all people are impatient in their own lives, I can’t justify a blanket opposition. We don’t give people an unrestricted freedom to harm their children, or strangers, just because they don’t care much about them. Why then should we give a young woman unrestricted freedom to hurt her far-off 60 year old self, just because they happen to pass through the same body at different points in time? I care about the 60 year old too, perhaps even more than that young woman does, relative to herself.

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