A ‘tree top’ view, versus a ‘nose pressed against the tree’ view changes the way we construct our understanding of the world. This may be no surprise. However, the fact that it substantially changes the way we behave, and does this without much (or any) cognitive recognition, is less well recognised and subsequently much more of a trapdoor than we may think.

What effect does it have?

A drought of action

Dr Sabine Pahl, from the Department of Psychology, University of Plymouth, UK, has worked with our distal/proximal quirk in reference to perceptions of climate change. In a test of 2007 drought risk perception respondents in the UK were presented with a newspaper article about a drought in the USA. Half were asked to imagine it was written the same year – 2007, and half asked to imagine it was written in 2057. When asked to comment on the likelihood of drought in the UK, the 2057-ers thought droughts seemed more likely far into the future and the 2007-ers the reverse was true.

It seems even known hypothetical adjustments to the calendar-scale make cognitively unrecognised changes to our perception of the world.

In a slightly recursive sense, this tells us that climate salience is high around events which are themselves climate created.

Do actions lead salience? Or can we tweak its evocation?

I think, I know what I mean

Adjustment to expectations of ‘distance’ can be triggered simply by keywords, too. Even when asked about events and actions that relate to our own goals we can make them seem distal or proximal by asking ‘how’ we’re going to do them (proximal) versus ‘why’ we’re going to them (distal).

Pahl gives us a lovely pen-portrait of this effect using the example of asking someone about a meeting in relation to when it happened:

  1. Yesterday: one would hear descriptions such as finalising presentation, arranging teaching for start of term, packing bag, navigating unfamiliar city (low level construal)
  2. Six months ago: one would hear descriptions such as inspiring talks, meeting colleagues in the field, discussing new ideas, travelling to exciting places (high level construal)

The point of zero distance

The experiments described (and the vast companion work) tells us that the ‘point of zero distance’ = actual experience. And any shift to the distal, or perceptual, plane dilutes the evocation of experience – the more it becomes about strategy, planning, and the less about practicalities.

This sounds a lot like the problems of engaging people with pension planning, doesn’t it?

It sounds a lot like the problems of engaging people with pension planning

Can we use an understanding of proximal evocations to render actions concrete when marketing pensions? It seems we should be able to.The first question to ask is has it been done already? The answer is ‘yes’. But I’m not sure it was driven by a conscious understanding of construal. (I’m not sure it matters, terribly much – I am less of a fan of giving marks for one’s working out, and more a fan of the correct answer however derived.)

Over in New York an agency called Droga5 manage the Prudential marketing account.

Executive Creative Director Ted Royer says

“Retirement is a scary thing. And if we face it with real, stark honesty and not sugarcoat it by showing people on sailboats sailing off into the sunset–fake images that they couldn’t live up to–I think we can get a lot more done…”

which makes a lot of sense. It is scary. Showing stock-shots of aspirations unattainable turns people off.

He goes on to say

“It [retirement] just had to be framed in a truly honest, conversational way.”

This is true to an extent. From a social psychology position, retirement needs to be presented – so as to be viewed – as close to the ‘point of zero distance’ as it can be in order to cast it in the ‘how’ which creates action. (And of course, what is marketing without action?) However, by-hook-or-by-crook one outcome of communicating in an “honest, conversational way” is to bring us close to the point of zero distance.

The campaign – actually – works really well in this sense. It is called Prudential Day One. Have a look at the opening TV ad

This spawned many stories of retirement. Many versions – long-form, personal versions – on youtube. Have a look at Mujahid Abdul-Rashid’s Day One story.

As much as I am focussing on construal – or evoking recognition at the point of zero distance – there’s some great advantage showing multiple ‘stories’ because prevalence drives behaviour by defining the norm. I have written about this
– here, ‘Mirror mirror on the wall
– here ‘Bin recycling: communications
– and here ‘The media informs our choice in way they don’t realise. (And nor do we.)

While Prudential were helping people retire – and the ads expressed the stark reality of such – what the work really did was to make the construal proximal; was to make the moment salient, and ‘now’. So, much like asking for consideration of droughts in the present makes them seem more likely, Prudential asking for consideration of retirement in the present, makes it seem more likely and gets us thinking ‘how’, not ‘why’.

This is where Pahl found the most immediate response, as much as Droga5 did.

And this is where we find the point of zero distance. Are you looking there, too?

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• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
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