Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Keeping your distance

For some time, I have been considering to write a blog on distance and wondered from which angle to approach this topic. A 2008 Yale University research article was quite helpful to assess the scope of this subject: Keeping One’s Distance – The Influence of Spatial Distance Cues on Affect and Evaluation by Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh. (PDF)

Our concept of distance comes already at early childhood. As of 3-4 months, babies are likely to start crying at the moment they are left alone. The distance of their caretakers makes them feel vulnerable. Yale article: “the adaptive value of the infant keeping close to its mother and monitoring its distance to her at all times in order to gain protection from predators (see also Lorenz, 1962)”.

The Yale article makes a very interesting statement: “Accordingly, we argue that a primitive understanding of physical distance is the foundation for the later-developed concept of psychological distance, given humans’ ‘‘pervasive tendency to conceptualize the mental world by analogy to the physical world, rather than the other way around’’ (Mandler, 1992, p. 596)”.

Psychological distance is a term from the so called “construal level theory” and “is defined on several dimensions — temporal (LO: time), spatial (LO: physical), social (LO: eg, hierarchies) and hypothetical distance being considered most important, though there is some debate among social psychologists about further dimensions like informational, experiential or affective distance. The general idea is that the more distant an object is from the individual, the more abstract it will be thought of, while the closer the object is, the more concretely it will be thought of”. (Wiki)

The affective distance is an interesting one as we have a Dutch saying: “Uit het oog, uit het hart”. This would officially translate as “Out of sight, out of mind” but the Dutch use “heart” instead of “mind”. It’s one of my reasons for not believing in long-distance relationships.

Including physical distance as a subset of psychological distance is indeed the world upside down. Realisation of physical distance comes first in human development (3-4 months), understanding the concept of time comes even much later. Understanding other dimensions like social and affective distance may never arrive in some human beings.

This week, I dreamt about a certain person which I had not talked to in more than 2 months. Being curious by nature, I sent a message. Remarkably, this person had strongly thought about me for an entire week. To me this is a wonderful synthesis of temporal, spatial and affective distance. 

Yale article: “Spatial distance and affect are inextricably linked, because the principle that ‘‘distance equals safety’’ is deeply ingrained in humans’ biological makeup”.

Keeping a temporalspatial and affective distance from some people indeed equals safety – including but not limited to heartaches. 

Alicia Keys – Distance and Time (2009) – artist, lyrics, Wiki


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