How is distance affecting your thinking?

Your perception of distance has a profound effect on your thinking and decision making.  When a tragedy occurs in a particular neighbourhood people often say we didn’t expect that ‘here’.  We are so used to hearing about awful things happening in distant places but when it happens in our own neighbourhood we are far more shocked.  This is very understandable.  The closer an incident is to us the more we feel that it could have happened to us.  However, it is interesting how we unconsciously transfer this thinking to abstract concepts like time and ownership, and it can create the Thinking Trap of Distance. 

Thinking Traps are our unconscious biases.  Behavioural and Neuroscientists have been studying these cognitive quirks that influence how we see the world for many years.  It is thought that they are part of our genetic or cultural heritage because they are so hard-wired into our brains.  Your biases or Thinking Traps are continuously influencing your thinking and this means every conversation you have and every decision you make.  Mostly your biases are a convenient shortcut to making quick and efficient judgements because your brain is always seeking ways to conserve precious thinking space. However, if left unchecked these biases can become dangerous thinking traps that can blind you to important new information or alternative options when making a decision. 

This is the fourth article in a mini-series that explores the SEEDS® Model developed by Dr. David Rock and his colleagues at the Neuroleadership Institute.   For a brief overview of the model, click here.  For other articles in the series check out my blog

D is for Distance
The D in the SEEDS model is for Distance.  This can be summed up in the statement “Nearer is more important than far away”.  It often leads to short-term thinking rather than long-term investment and explains why so many businesses find it difficult to articulate a long-term vision. 

The closeness of ownership endows our possessions with greater value.  This is called the ‘Endowment Effect’ and it kicks in when we own something.  The effect means that we rapidly begin to believe that others will pay more for something than we ourselves paid for it.  This can happen as soon as someone is told that they own something.  In a famous experiment by Dan Kahneman and his colleagues, they gave people a mug and offered them the opportunity to sell or exchange it for items of equal value (some pens).  They found that once ownership was established the participants would only accept double the amount of its value to let it go.   In another study two groups of workers were offered an incentive to achieve a particular target.  One group were told that they would get the bonus if they achieved the target.  The others were told that they had the bonus already and that it would be taken away if they didn’t achieve the target.  The second group worked harder than the first because we have a built-in aversion to loss.  The workers in the experiment found it more painful to lose something they already had than to put in sustained effort to achieve something that only might show up in the future.  This effect leads many business owners (and house owners) to have an inflated perception of what their business (or house) is actually worth.  It also affects the motivation of people who are on an annual bonus.  A year often feels too distant to be motivating because so much can happen in the meantime.

The Thinking Trap of Distance can also lead us into ‘Affective Forecasting’.  This is extending how we feel now into the future.  “I feel bad about this change and I always will” or “I feel good about this person or investment and I always will”.  We are also not very good at estimating how long or intense an anticipated feeling will be.  This is often seen with pay rises.  People think that a pay rise will make them happy and more motivated but there is plenty of evidence that if pay is their only motivation the feeling of happiness does not last very long at all and they quickly want more. 

We are also wired for instant gratification.  This is probably an ancient mechanism that helped us survive by taking advantage of whatever was edible when we found it, even if it was small, rather than waiting for a bigger or better opportunity in the future - in case there isn’t another opportunity and we become too weak to hunt.  There are plenty of experiments that show people very willing to take £50 now rather that £100 in a year’s time.  This is called ‘Temporal Discounting’ and credit cards and in-store cards use it to great effect.  There are many people who get caught in a senseless spiral of debt by letting their desire for having something now get the better of what they know is a 25 or 35% compounding debt by only paying off the minimum amount .  This is so prevalent because these companies are simply taking advantage of our hard-wired Thinking Traps.   A distant debt seems less important or significant when compared to an immediate gain and only a small amount to pay now.  

It takes significant effort to resist the temptation of instant gratification.  Back in the 1960’s the psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a simple test with 4-year olds to assess their ability to delay gratification with his now-famous Marshmallow Test.  He found that 70% of his participants succumbed to the temptation of eating a marshmallow now rather than waiting for the reward of two in the future.  For more on the significant differences in the life-outcomes of the original participants who managed to resist the bias of Temporal Discounting and avoided the Thinking Trap of Distance click here

The Antidote

The antidote to this Thinking Trap is to remove distance from the equation.  You need to be able to evaluate the decision, outcome or object as if it were closer to you in space, time or ownership.  This is especially true for managing remote teams in different countries and time zones. 

Far too many people procrastinate on distant deadlines because they seem less urgent.  However, they give themselves no wiggle room as the deadline approaches and often suffer a lot of stress when a number of urgent things come in at the same time.  

The author Suzy Welch invented a very elegant and simple approach to overcome the Thinking Trap of Distance.  She calls it 10/10/10 and describes it with lots of personal anecdotes in her book of the same name.  In order to get a better perspective on any decision it is healthy and wise to consider it from three different timeframes:

- How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now?

- How about 10 months from now?

- How about 10 years from now?

This approach ensures that you are tapping into the short, medium and long term perspectives. 

My wife Pam and I took this to an extreme when we were chatting about the future the other day and we thought it would be fun to plan our 70th Wedding anniversary.  It’s still a few years away...when I will be 104!  It’s very refreshing to think what we need to be doing more and less of now in order to be able to enjoy and celebrate that moment to the fullest. 

So I invite you to consider how you may be falling into the Thinking Trap of Distance and how you can mitigate it by being more mindful.  For example, what are you valuing more simply by being in possession of it?  What may you need to let go of in order to let new opportunities in?  How well are you forecasting how you will feel about certain outcomes?  Are you getting trapped in a negative mindset or are you perhaps being blindly optimistic?  How easily do you succumb to instant gratification?  Can you resist temptation and delay gratification for a bigger return in the future? 

Thinking about all of the above can take significant effort and most people allow themselves to be guided by their unconscious biases because it is so much easier.  However, there is plenty of evidence that there are significant rewards and opportunities to be had for those who are willing to put the effort into being more mindful.  

There are a number of insightful exercises you can do to discover and explore your thinking preferences and increase your mindfulness.  If you would like to find out more just drop me a line and it would be great to hear your thoughts about the Thinking Trap of Distance. 

In the meantime remember to stay curious! 

With best regards,

David

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