Near-Far Bias


  • People display stronger preferences for eating an apple over a candy bar if this takes place in a week’s time, compared to today;
  • People tend to explain their own actions situationally, and others’ actions by dispositionsHe tripped over a rock because he’s careless, I tripped over a rock because it was placed really stupidly
  • Employees are less likely to see the same policy as desirable if it’s going to be implemented tomorrow, as opposed to the distant future;
  • People negotiate better if the outcome of the negotiation isn’t going to take effect for several months, compared to if it will take effect tomorrow.

These are all examples of near-far bias, or , as the psychologists call it, ‘construal level theory’.

The idea is that humans process things that are ‘near’ differently from things that are further away. The farther away an experience is in time, for example, the more abstractly we tend to think of it. Whereas the nearer something is in time, the more concrete and local our reasoning is. The same goes for ‘nearness’ in space.

It’s a powerful idea. Correspondence bias, for example, becomes a special case: my beliefs are ‘near’ (I see them in great detail), whereas someone else’s beliefs are ‘far’. I explain my beliefs by detailed context, argumentation and reasoning, whereas someone else’s beliefs are seen as instances of cruder, higher-level traits such as social background, ‘conservatism’ and so on.

This heuristic can be manipulated for signalling purposes.

Why should smoking be ‘artistic’? Why do religions sometimes mandate growing beards?

I’ve noticed that the really great religious leaders I’ve met have usually been very funny, happy people. Whereas the foot soldiers are, more often than not, solemn and not much fun. There’s nothing in the scriptures to say that you have to be that way, so it’s probably signalling behaviour. Which explains why the leaders don’t have to do it – because they know the essence of their religion.

The ideals most major religions profess are similar, but the behaviours each encourage can sometimes seem arbitrary, e.g not eating with your left hand, resting on the 7th day, and so forth.

Ideals are ‘far’, i.e. abstract. Actions, on the other hand, are concrete and therefore ‘near’.

That is how religious hypocrites seem religious – they’re following certain observable behaviours, e.g. only eating with their right hands.

This also explains why so many wannabe writers are pretentious, wear large glasses, and so on, whereas real writers are far more interesting and diverse. The wannabes need to signal their writer-status, and, moreover, are more likely not to really want to be writers so much as they want to be perceived as writers. Whereas the good writers prefer writing, as evidenced by the fact that we consider them good writers.

If you want to be a good writer, leave the beret in the closet and just write.