How the abstraction shield works

All kinds of psychological distance make things seem less important, presumably because they usually are. So it’s better for bad things to seem distant and good things to seem close.

Do we only modify importance in response to distance, or do we change our perception of distance in order to manipulate our perception of importance? This article suggests the latter is true: people view things they don’t want to be guilty of as further back in time:

Germans (but not Canadians) judged the Holocaust to be more subjectively remote in time when they read only about German-perpetrated atrocities than when this threat was mitigated. Greater subjective distance predicted lower collective guilt, which, in turn, predicted less willingness to make amends (Study 1). Distancing under threat was more pronounced among defensive Germans who felt unjustly blamed by other nations (Study 2). In Study 3, the authors examined the causal role of subjective time. Nondefensive Germans induced to view the Holocaust as closer reported more collective guilt and willingness to compensate. In contrast, defensive Germans reported less collective guilt after the closeness induction. Taken together, the studies demonstrate that how past wrongs are psychologically situated in time can play a powerful role in people’s present-day reactions to them.

That defensive Germans thought the Holocaust was earliest than either the innocent Canadians, or the more guilty and more guilt accepting Germans implies that the effect is probably not related to how bad the guilt is, but rather how much a person would like to avoid it.

Psychological distance also alters whether we think in near or far mode and our thinking mode alters our perception of distance.  So if we want to feel distant from bad things we could benefit from thinking about them more abstractly and good things more concretely (as abstraction triggers far mode and concreteness near mode). Do we do this?

Yes. Euphemisms are usually abstract references to bad things, and it is often rude not to use them. We certainly try to think of death abstractly, in terms of higher meanings rather than the messy nature of the event. At funerals we hide the body and talk about values. Admissions and apologies are often made abstractly, e.g. ‘I made a mistake’ rather than ‘I shouldn’t have spent my afternoons having sex with Elise’. We mostly talk about sex abstractly, and while it is not bad it is also not something people want to be near when uninvolved. Menstruation is referred to abstractly (wrong time of the month, ladies’ issues etc). Calling meat ‘dead animal’ or even ‘cow’ is a clear attempt to inflict guilt on the diner.

Some of these things may be thought of abstractly because people object to their details (what their friend looks like having sex) without objecting to the whole thing (the knowledge that their friend has sex), rather than because they want to be distant especially. However then the question remains why they would approve of an abstract thing but not its details, and the answer could be the same (considering what your friend looks like having sex is too much like being there).

On the other hand we keep detailed photographs of people and places we like, collect detailed knowledge of the lives of celebrities we wish we were close to, and plan out every moment of weddings and sometimes holidays months in advance.

It’s otherwise unclear to me why concrete language about bad things should be more offensive or hurtful often than abstract language, though obviously it is. People are aware of the equivalence of the concepts, so how can one be worse? I think the answer is that abstract language forces the listener psychologically close to the content, which automatically makes it feel important to them, which is a harm if the thing you are referring to is bad. It is offensive in the same way that holding poo in front of someone’s face is meaner than pointing it out to them across a field.

5 responses to “How the abstraction shield works

  1. This post seems to be in two disconnected parts. What does subjective psychological distance have to do with the use of euphemisms and abstraction?

    Addressing the whole psychological distance part, the whole thing seems very confusing. The Holocaust occurred 65-71 years ago. This is a fact. To say that defensive Germans view 65 years as more distant in the past than others is absurd. I attribute their unwillingness to “make amends” (it has been made enough, but I digress) to – oh I don’t know – being defensive and thinking that they were being unjustly blamed 65 years after the event. If they were posed a question like “did the Holocaust occur in the distant past?” and they got a whiff of potential guilt-tripping, they would naturally answer in the affirmative. Not because they genuinely believe 65 years constitutes “distant past”, but because it’s ammunition for debate. Trying to draw a correlation between “perceived psychological temporal distance” (a flimsy notion itself) and ascribed importance is just silly.

    I was also confused by the concrete vs. abstract language thing. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but concrete language would be more offensive. “You are a despicable piece of shit for reasons X, Y and Z” is more offensive than “I don’t like you”. This seems obvious when we consider the very nature of abstraction; to take things away. Also, abstract language finds much use in lofty, content-free rhetoric, which is almost invariably benign.

    • Psychological distance is related to abstraction because they trigger one another – see construal level theory.

      Abstraction takes away detail, but why should the detail be worse than a shorthand way of referring to the same thing?

      • A cursory reading of construal level theory leaves me with the impression that “available information” would perhaps be a more accurate (i.e. more strongly correlated) term instead of psychological distance. As a physics/math/cs student who programs for food, my life has been one of abstractions for as far as I can recall. I can’t say I’m psychologically distant from my daily activities (or maybe the notion is inapplicable to knowledge). Mere hours after reading in entirety a detailed tome on an event in the distant past (e.g. the American Revolution), I’m actually psychologically close to the happenings, even though I haven’t experienced any of them, nor were any of my ancestry affiliated with the events. Months after reading, I don’t remember as many details, so I see it as more abstract – but only because I am subject to the frustratingly lossy nature of human memory.

        I couldn’t relate to the vacation/activity and grocery trip/grocery list examples either. Maybe it’s just me.

  2. Pingback: Why death for oneself, suffering for others? | Meteuphoric

  3. “As a physics/math/cs student who programs for food, my life has been one of abstractions for as far as I can recall.”

    Programming isn’t a far activity. Your goals are far, but programming is an analytic, hence near, activity. Since people apply the morality of their daily lives to politics (, programmers tend to fit the Monomaniacal Quadrant ( with respect to their ideologies. This is why the followers of Less Wrong and Overcoming Bias are so often programmers. The intellectual styles match: near thinking applied to problems defined from afar.


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