Obstacles Are Far

One standard finding about near vs. far thinking is that in far mode we tend to focus more on our goals, while in near near mode we tend to focus more on practical constraints that limit which goals we can achieve. However, there is one kind of practical consideration that can get us to think more in far mode; an “obstacle” we are inclined to overcome:

Can obstacles prompt people to look at the “big picture” and open up their minds? Do the cognitive effects of obstacles extend beyond the tasks with which they interfere? These questions were addressed in 6 studies involving both physical and nonphysical obstacles and different measures of global versus local processing styles. Perceptual scope increased after participants solved anagrams in the presence, rather than the absence, of an auditory obstacle (random words played in the background; Study 1), particularly among individuals low in volatility (i.e., those who are inclined to stay engaged and finish what they do; Study 4). It also increased immediately after participants encountered a physical obstacle while navigating a maze (Study 3A) and when compared with doing nothing (Study 3B). Conceptual scope increased after participants solved anagrams while hearing random numbers framed as an “obstacle to overcome” rather than a “distraction to ignore” (Study 2) and after participants navigated a maze with a physical obstacle, compared with a maze without a physical obstacle, but only when trait (Study 5) or state (Study 6) volatility was low. Results suggest that obstacles trigger an “if obstacle, then start global processing” response, primarily when people are inclined to stay engaged and finish ongoing activities. Implications for dealing with life’s obstacles and related research are discussed. (more)

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  • Drewfus

    Robin, on the specific definition of near versus far thinking, why do you believe these alternatives constitute alternative modes of thinking, as opposed to simply a shift in time focus, with requisite shift in priorities? Consider this defn:
    “An option allowing a change in the method of operation of a device.”
    Compared to for example, the distinction between episodic and semantic memory systems, there is not specifically a change in mode when switching between these mechanisms, since the brain has specific areas for each function, whereas ‘mode’ implies a singular piece of wetware that switches, in the algorithmic sense, as needed.

    What exactly is the bi-modal mechanism in the case of near/far thinking?

    • Drewfus, as I’ve said before, brains seem to shift smoothly from more to less far vs. near thinking; it isn’t a sharp two mode system.

      • Drewfus

        Ok, I thought you might have covered this in previous posts. However the appearance of smooth transitions surely doesn’t prove that near/far thinking isn’t modal in the strict sense of the term – it could be that the seeming seamlessness is a result of hidden complexity, and deep down there really are functional transitions going on that are (just) below the level of conscious awareness.
        Isn’t this getting to the heart of why our behavior so often differs from our explanations of it? That is, we are so abstracted from our mental mechanisms, even relatively high-level ones, that we are constantly chasing explanations for our behavior that makes sense of what these brain modules are presenting to our consciousness, where ‘presenting’ means ‘needs to know’, rather than ‘this is really what I’m up to’.

  • Matt Young

    The same subject came up in Jim Hamilton’s continuing work on regime shifting in energy markets. When the price of gas goes above a recent peak, consumers change their buying habits. The same phenomena comes up in the Prescott growth model.

    We operate short term, when buying gas, we just check the queue, if its too long we skip the purchase. Then one day we have no choice, get stuck in a long gas line and that become the obstacle. Henceforth, we look at price, using money to manage gas over longer periods, we go into another regime, so they call it regime shifting.