The psychology of transcending the here and now

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Psychologists Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope from the Departments of Psychology at the University of Tel Aviv and New York University write an excellent article reviewing how people think about the future in this month’s Science (full text can be downloaded here without a subscription).

The authors write:

Our experiences of the world are limited to the self, here and now, yet people, events, and situations that are beyond our immediate experience populate our mind. We plan for the future, remember the past, think about remote locations, take others’ perspective, and consider alternatives to reality. In each case, we transcend the present to consider psychologically distant objects… But how do we transcend the present, evaluate, and make decisions with respect to psychologically distant objects? And how does increasing distance from objects affect the way we respond to these objects?

In other words, how do we think about the future and how does that influence what we decide now?  

This question is tremendously important for those of us in the humanitarian, development and planning worlds who argue that thinking about tomorrow is vitally important for making decisions today.  

One reason why this is so hard is the  “availability heuristic” (identified by Kahneman and Tversky as far back as the late 1970’s).   This phenomina is when people believe something will be more likely to happen in the future if they can easily imagine what it would be like or can quickly think of an easy example which just “comes to mind”.  

This means that most of us, most of the time, believe the future will be like what we already know.  This is also why we are so often blind-sided by surprises that may appear obvious in retrospect; we expect more of the same but the world usually gives us something different.  Richard Fernandez provides an excellent example in the recent financial crisis.  He writes:

It is actually possible not so see something that is really there if the signal it emits does not match the human visual spectrum and/or our visual signal processing system eliminates the sight of it as noise. We can’t see patterns that our brains have filtered out. When a terrifying creature from outer space has these attributes in a science fiction/horror movie the result is something like the . In movies of that type, much of the action revolves around learning how to see the monster and the remainder on how to defeat it. The Economist article entitled “The Confessions of a Risk Manager”, written by a risk manager at a “large global bank” describes how this can happen, not in a science fiction/horror movie, but in the actual world economy.

Influencing people’s perception of what is happening now, through considerations of what might happen tomorrow, is central to this premise.  Indeed changing mental models was what Pierre Wack’s original scenario work was all about (Peter Senge has a great paper elaborating on this in more detail here from an ancient conference all the way back in 1985!)

Evidence from psychology seems to support this notion, as Liberman and Trope argue that the more distant a decision is seen to be, the more abstract it becomes.  When a decision is more abstract, they find, it is more easily influenced by higher level goals and arguments.  Thus people are more likely to behave according to their higher goals when relating to actions in the distant future than to when making decisions under the influence of their immediate pressures.

This is good news for futures planners and humanitarian strategists seeking to change how things are done now.  Pierre Wack always said that scenarios (and I would argue most modeling / forecasting work) is really about changing people’s mental models of how the world works.  The evidence presented in this paper suggests that the most influential way to do so might be to extract people from the immediate tactical pressures of today, ground them in realistic stories of tomorrow, link them to their higher goals and intentions, then bring them back to today with a fresher perspective.  If that can be done correctly then indeed, there may be hope for the future after all!

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