Humans spend a large portion of their lives in pursuit of desired ends, from finding food and meeting deadlines to pursuing important career and relationship goals. The desired ends that people seek can vary in their proximity: For instance, food may be spatially close or distant; we might plan to meet a friend in the near or distant future. Thus, the ability to mentally support the pursuit of desired ends that are distant as well as close is essential for adaptive human functioning. This essay examines the basic mental processes that allow humans to contract and expand their regulatory scope in this functional way. A growing body of research suggests that different levels of psychological supports enable people to effectively pursue ends that can be closer or more distant. High-level supports emphasize central and general aspects of an experience, and therefore tend to travel well—they can effectively guide action and interaction for the distant future, for remote locations, for unlikely scenarios, or with dissimilar others. Lower-level supports emphasize specific, secondary, and unique aspects of an experience, and therefore support contractive scope—they help immerse people in the particular details of the current context to act effectively in the here and now. As the field moves forward, researchers are beginning to investigate how people expand and contract the scope of their social relationships in particular—an area of inquiry with important implications for understanding domains such as social communication and social learning that are central to human experience as social creatures.
- mental representation
- psychological distance