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Psychological distance: why our plans about knowledge can fail [RealKM Connect introductory series]

This is part 4 of a series of articles presenting key points from Stephen Bounds’ presentation1 to a RealKM Connect introductory seminar in November 20162.

Psychological distance, also referred to as construal level theory, is a theory in social psychology that describes the relationship between distance and the extent to which our thinking about that distance is either abstract or concrete. If we are presented with two objects or events, one nearer and the other further away from us, we think in more abstract, conceptual terms about the things that are further away from us, and more practically about the things that are close up.

There are four dimensions to the type of distance:

  • temporal distance, whether an event is a long time in the future or the past
  • spatial distance, whether you are separated by a large geographic distance
  • social distance, whether you feel you know someone well or not
  • hypothetical distance, whether you think an event is likely to occur or not.

These dimensions have implications for knowledge management when we consider value discounting3, stereotyping4 5, risk taking6, and power dynamics.

Value discounting occurs when we value the outcomes of situations with less psychological distance to us more than those some distance away. If something happens further away we tend to value it less. This is the idea of a dollar now being worth more to us than five dollars next week. The relative levels of benefit are blurred.

Stereotyping is where if you move further away and increase your psychological distance you’re more likely to make generalisations about people and groups, whether that predicts their behaviour or not. Abstract thinking encourages us to believe that all people in a group will behave the same way.

Psychological distance also affects how power dynamics play out. People are more likely to be polite if someone is physically close to them, than if they’re further away. If you’re thinking about someone in terms of their HR number rather than as an actual person, you’re more likely to consider the strategic outcomes of your plans than the fact that you’re dealing with a physical and emotional person.

These considerations impact on the kinds of interventions organisations have with their teams. Icebreaker exercises in workshops don’t have direct relevance to the task of a workshop. Their function is to break down social distance so that people feel more personally connected and invested in the workshop on the day.

Consider psychological distance and its impact if you are building a knowledge bank. People often say, “What a great idea, let’s build a knowledge bank and put everything in there.” You may be buoyed up by this positive response, but when it comes to the reality of inputting documents on a Friday afternoon, suddenly the cost of fifteen minutes work seems a lot more onerous than it did when you were planning this in the abstract.

Training exercises and simulations are another example. In a dry run of an emergency drill the sense of distance affects our response. When we’re involved in an actual scenario, our brain is in the now, not with an abstract situation that may happen in five year’s time. Our brain is tricked into thinking this situation is something to take seriously, so we take concrete steps in regard to what needs to happen in a real, day-to-day sense, as if it’s happened for a real emergency.

The theory of psychological distance is valuable because it gives us a tool to analyse behaviour and determine whether an initiative is likely to succeed or not. It’s good to think abstractly, to think in an abstract way about the future, but we need to be aware that when it comes to the crunch, when something needs to be done on the day, will people have the ability to put the abstract into practice? Will the incentives line up?

Header image source: Psi2 is in the public domain.

References and notes:

  1. Stephen Bounds is the Director and Principal Consultant at KnowQuestion, publisher of RealKM Magazine.
  2. For a copy of the transcript please contact Amanda Surrey.
  3. Goodman, J. K., & Malkoc, S. A. (2012). Choosing Here and Now versus There and Later: The Moderating Role of Psychological Distance on Assortment Size Preferences, Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 751- 768.
  4. McCrea, S. W., Wieber, F., & Myers, A. L. (2012). Construal level mind- sets moderate self and social stereotyping, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 51-68.
  5. Brewer, M.B., & Pierce K. P. (2005). Social Identity Complexity and Outgroup Tolerance, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31: 428-437.
  6. Sagristano, M. D., Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2002). Time-dependent gambling: Odds now, money later. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: General, 131, 364-376.
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Amanda Surrey

Amanda Surrey is facilitator of RealKM Connect. She is a strategic knowledge management professional with extensive experience in global business environments, including BHP Billiton where she worked for the past 14 years. Amanda has planned, managed and executed innovative knowledge management solutions that have enhanced workforce intelligence and overall organisational competitiveness. She holds post graduate qualifications in information management, and a Master of Arts.
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