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Research uncovers new angle on mental distance.

April 9, 2014

Toronto - Why does the second hour of a journey seem shorter than the first? According to new research from the University of Toronto, the answer is how we’re physically oriented in space.
In a series of six studies, Sam Maglio, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough who is cross-appointed to the University’s Rotman School of Management, demonstrated that a person’s orientation – the direction they are headed – changed how they thought of an object or event.

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

What we don’t know is what leads to a feeling of closeness, he says. Previous studies have focused on changing objective measures such as distance or time to make something subjectively feel close or far.

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

Using everyday locations and objects such as subway stations, lottery draws and Starbucks drinks, Prof. Maglio and Evan Polman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison  found people heading a certain direction considered the places ahead to be physically nearer than those behind, although the actual distance was the same.

People also felt events that occurred in the direction they were headed happened more recently and events would be more likely to occur. Strangers who were coming towards participants were thought to be more similar to themselves than when those same strangers were headed away. The feeling of closeness appeared when events were good or bad.

Prof. Maglio says the research supports previous findings that something that feels close in one way, such as physical distance, will also feel close in time, probability and social similarity. “That’s why a phrase such as A long time ago in a distant land makes more intuitive sense than in a nearby land.”

According to Prof. Maglio, this research could potentially impact business such as retail. “Firms that induce a sense of orientation towards the customer might be able to create psychological closeness and connection.”

The research is published in Psychological Science.

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