A Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation

The tripartite foundations of temporal psychological distance: Metaphors, ecology, and teleology

Published: October, 2015

Researcher(s): Van Boven, L., & Caruso, E.


What is psychological distance? Why do events sometimes seem “close” yet other times seem “ages away?” We propose a tripartite model of the foundations of psychological distance in which: (a) people use spatial distance as a metaphor for psychological distance; (b) the ecology of subjective experiences that coincide with changes in objective distance define, and hence, influence psychological distance; (c) psychological distance is shaped in the service of people's ultimate goals, or teleological considerations, of successfully navigating through time. This model implies that the subjective experiences that are typically associated with reductions in objective temporal distance should reduce temporal psychological distance–the subjective sense of how close or far away events are. We review evidence indicating that emotional arousal, attention, fluency, and motivational considerations all reduce psychological distance. This model also implies a temporal asymmetry in which people prioritize thinking about the future, which approaches in time, over thinking about the past, which recedes in time. Consequently, the future is psychologically closer than the past, people attend more to the future than to the past, and people feel more emotionally aroused about the future than about the past. These findings help advance understanding of psychological distance as a distinct psychological construct.

JTF grant funded: Yes