Tag Archives: abstraction

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.