close yet so far


Ever get that feeling that the place you’re heading to is much closer than it should be? Take for instance a trip with your friends to a resort. Why does the last hour leading to the destination feels like its shorter than the first hour when you all jumped in the car and left home? Enthusiasm aside for that particular example, researchers at  University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) and the Rotman School of Management believe it may all have to do with how we’re orientated in space.

After performing six studies, the team led by Sam Maglio, an assistant professor in UTSC’s Department of Management, found that the direction a person is heading toward affects the way the said person relates to objects, events and even people.

“Feeling close to or distant from something impacts our behavior and judgment,” says Maglio. “We feel more socially connected, more emotionally engaged, and more attuned to the present when something is perceived as close.”

Previously, researchers focused on changing objective measures, such as distance or time, to make something feel subjectively close or far.

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“But people move around their environments, constantly going closer to some things and farther from others,” says Maglio. “We wanted to see if this movement changed how people perceived their surroundings.”

After questioning volunteers who went about their way around familiar landmarks and objects, like subways stations or Starbucks drinks, the researchers found that people heading in a certain direction considered the places ahead to be physically nearer than those behind, although the actual distance was the same.

Interestingly enough, further strengthening the idea that mental distance can be extremely subjective, people also considered events that occurred in the direction they were heading as taking place earlier than they actually have. This happened regardless if the events were considered good or bad to the questioned volunteer. This mental distance also affected relations with other persons; strangers who were coming towards participants were thought to be more similar to themselves than when those same strangers were headed away.

“That’s why a phrase such as A long time ago in a distant land makes more intuitive sense than in a nearby land.” Maglio says.

The findings could have potential implications in the retail industry, where marketers may exploit this idea and position key products better and design a more efficiency sells-wise market place.

Findings were reported in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.