Abstract/Distant Future Bias

The latest Science has a psych article saying we think of distant stuff more abstractly, and vice versa.  "The brain is hierarchically organized with higher points in the cortical hierarchy representing increasingly more abstract aspects of stimuli"; activating a region makes nearby activations more likely.  This has stunning implications for our biases about the future. 

All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits. 

Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits. 

Since these things mostly just cannot go together in reality, this must bias our thinking both about now and about distant futures.  When "in the moment," we focus on ourselves and in-our-face details, feel "one with" what we see and close to quirky folks nearby, see much as uncertain, and safely act to achieve momentary desires given what seems the most likely current situation.  Kinda like smoking weed.

Regarding distant futures, however, we’ll be too confident, focus too much on unlikely global events, rely too much on trends, theories, and loose abstractions, while neglecting details and variation.  We’ll assume the main events take place far away (e.g., space), and uniformly across large regions.  We’ll focus on untrustworthy consistently-behaving globally-organized social-others.  And we’ll neglect feasibility, taking chances to achieve core grand symbolic values, rather than ordinary muddled values.  Sound familiar?

More bluntly, we seem primed to confidently see history as an inevitable march toward a theory-predicted global conflict with an alien united them determined to oppose our core symbolic values, making infeasible overly-risky overconfident plans to oppose them.  We seem primed to neglect the value and prospect of trillions of quirky future creatures not fundamentally that different from us, focused on their simple day-to-day pleasures, mostly getting along peacefully in vastly-varied uncoordinated and hard-to-predict local cultures and life-styles. 

Of course being biased to see things a certain way doesn’t mean they aren’t that way.  But it should sure give us pause.  Selected quotes for those who want to dig deeper:

In sum, different dimensions of psychological distance – spatial, temporal, social, and hypotheticality – correspond to different ways in which objects or events can be removed from the self, and farther removed objects are construed at a higher (more abstract) level. Three hypotheses follow from this analysis. (i) As the various dimensions map onto a more fundamental sense of psychological distance, they should be interrelated. (ii) All of the distances should similarly affect and be affected by the level of construal. People would think more abstractly about distant than about near objects, and more abstract construals would lead them to think of more distant objects. (iii) The various distances would have similar effects on prediction, evaluation, and action. …

[On] a task that required abstraction of coherent images from fragmented or noisy visual input … performance improved … when they anticipated working on the actual task in the more distant future … when participants thought the actual task was less likely to take place and when social distance was enhanced by priming of high social status. … Participants who thought of a more distant event created fewer, broader groups of objects. … Participants tended to describe more distant future activities (e.g., studying) in high-level terms (e.g., "doing well in school") rather than in low-level terms (e.g., "reading a textbook"). … Compared with in-groups, out-groups are described in more abstract terms and believed to possess more global and stable traits … Participants drew stronger inferences about others’ personality from behaviors that took place in spatially distal, as compared with spatially proximal locations. … Behavior that is expected to occur in the more distant future is more likely to be explained in dispositional rather than in situational terms …

Thinking about an activity in high level, "why," terms rather than low level, "how," terms led participants to think of the activity as taking place in more distant points in time. … Students were more confident that an experiment would yield theory-confirming results when they expected the experiment to take place in a more distant point in time. … Spatial distance enhanced the tendency to predict on the basis of the global trend rather than on the basis of local deviation. … As temporal distance from an activity (e.g., attending a guest lecture) increased, the attractiveness of the activity depended more on its desirability (e.g.,how interesting the lecture was) and less on its feasibility (e.g., how convenient the timing of the lecture was). … People take greater risks (i.e., favoring bets with a low probability of winning a high amount over those that offer a high probability to win a small amount) in decisions about temporally more distant bets. 

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