• Sorina I. Crisan, PhD

Psychological vs. Social Distance: How They Apply to Your Life & to Research

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

By Sorina I. Crisan, PhD.


Why is the concept of 'distance' important today?


With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much discussion about maintaining 'social distance' between people in order to save lives. But what exactly is social distancing, within the context of a pandemic, and how does it differentiate itself from other types of distances, as described by various literatures and the sciences? If you are curious to learn more, following is a brief overview that explains the difference between the meaning of social distancing and that of the various facets of distance, with some examples being: absolute, relative, and psychological distance.


Photo by Nadine Shaabana (found on Unsplash - Wix Photo Gallery).
Photo by Nadine Shaabana

Why should you care about understanding the different facets of distance?


Our decisions are impacted by the concept of distance on a daily basis. To help us maintain our health and to protect others, today we are urged to be vigilent and utilize social distancing. To plan our day, month, year, etc., we employ temporal distance to help us organize our work and personal life. To buy a product, either online or in person, our purchasing decision-making process is influenced by marketing campaigns that utilize the power of psychological distance to subtly direct our choices. And, in the social sciences, distance, be that relative, absolute, or psychological, may help explain how and why certain international relations events occur.


Going back to basics: How exactly is distance defined?


The Oxford Dictionary describes the noun distance as originating from Latin which referred to the term as “distāntia” and was based on the idea of “‘standing apart’, hence ‘separation, opening (between); distance, remoteness; difference, diversity’” (Murray et al., 1978, p. 517). The word was thereafter adopted by Old French and was written as “destance” or “distance,” initially with the Latin meaning but which further developed over time to signify “the sense of ‘discord, quarrel,’ which was also the earliest in English” (Murray et al., 1978, p. 517).*


How is the term 'Social Distancing' understood during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and thus, through the prism of the health sector?


Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been urging individuals to practice social distancing by "remaining out of congregrate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible." According to Katie Pearce, Senior Writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine, "the goal of social distancing [...] is to slow down the outbreak in order to reduce the chance of infection among high-risk populations and to reduce the burden on health care systems and workers. Experts describe this as 'flattening the curve,' which generally refers to the potential success of social distancing measures to prevent surges in illness that could overwhelm health care systems."


Why does the concept of distance allow for variations to the above definition, within the context of international relations (IR)?


While the above definition gives the reader a basic understanding of the term distance, this description of the concept 'distance' it is not sufficient for the level of analysis put forth in the study of international relations, broadly speaking, and/or the study of conflict, more specifically. Why? Because depending on the research question being raised, it is important to provide a clear and detailed definition of the term distance (Lemke, 1995, p. 34;Pickering, 2012, p. 433). Moreover, scholars such as Pickering (2012) argue that “different theories regarding distance and conflict will call for different understandings of” the term. He goes on to argue that “distance remains an important variable and that each different form of distance measure can be significant” (Pickering, 2012, p. 425).*


Pickering's point is particularly important as "each different form of distance" measurement can help a researcher explain a different angle of her/his research question, thus helping to add value to the field of IR. For instance, in some research, the concept of distance gets to be interpreted as a variable that is either dependent (or independent) of an analyzed outcome (or event) and may lead (or not) to causation or (correlation) between the studied actors, events, etc.


To further clarify the above point, let us look at the following examples:


(1) Psychological distance and social psychology

Hamilton (2015) argues that “[p]sychologists from Walter Mischel to Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope have labeled psychological distance” as being “gaps between yourself and other people (social distance), the present and the future (temporal distance), your physical location and faraway places (spatial distance), or imagining something and experiencing it (experiential distance)” (Hamilton, 2015).*


Psychological distance applies to the field of social psychology and is studied through the prism of Construal Level Theory (more on this topic in a future article).


(2) Distance and foreign policymaking


When addressing foreign policymaking, scholars like Henrikson believe that although in a globalized world, domestic and foreign politics have become “increasingly alike” they still “remain separated by the phenomenon of distance”(Henrikson, 2002, p. 437).*


Henrikson argues for the importance of understanding and analyzing the “distance factor” as, “no matter to what extent the real barriers of space and time may be overcome by improvements in techniques of transportation and communication, there will remain certain aspects of the distance factor, relating to culture and to local geographic conditions, that are likely to make policy-making in the international sphere distinctively different” (Henrikson, 2002, p. 439). Besides the high relevance of a better understanding of the physical distance factor, Henrikson points to the need to also consider the significant weight placed by the “gravitational,” “topological”, and “attributional” distances as he believes that these “work to shape the policy maker’s comprehension of foreign lands and events occurring there. Each of these distance schemes corresponds […] to the way foreign policy makers actually think as they plan and strategize” (Henrikson, 2002, p. 439).*


A recent example in this field is my PhD thesis, The Politics of Intervention: The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making (2019). In this thesis, I explain how one may apply a social psychology view of psychological distance to the study of an international relations phenomenon, such as: allies' willingness to cooperate and jointly intervene in a conflict, against an enemy state. As such, I argue that although psychological distance is currently employed to determine an individual’s perceived distance from the “self” to the “other,” I argue that because the course of foreign policy decision making is decided by a group of individuals, then CLT may also be applied within the field of foreign policy analysis. Thus, a country’s decision to join (or not to join) hostile foreign policy action may indeed be analyzed through the prism of psychological distance and CLT, as this decision is shaped by a group of individuals who are representatives of the state.* (More on this topic in a future article.)


(3) Distance and violence between states


IR scholars “have developed unusually coherent and useful overviews of theoretical and empirical work that relate the study of international politics and conflict to geography, territory and territoriality, distance, space, and spatiality. Even though the overarching idea that holds all of these works together is that of the ‘spatiality’ of phenomena, overviews of spatiality by scholars who are not geographers have appeared only relatively recently” (Starr, 2015). In alignment with Abler et al., Starr argues that when addressing “spatiality” one is confronted with the notion of “distance” in the “absolute” versus “relative” values (Starr, 2005). This idea is in alignment with the thinking of other scholars like Wright (1955), Rummel (1975), and Abler et al. (1971).*


What is absolute distance?


Abler et al. argue that “until the 1950s geographers usually thought and hypothesized about distance and space in absolute terms. The measures of distance and location they used were the unchanging (absolute) units of miles, kilometers, and so forth” (Abler et al., 1971, pp. 72).*

Similar to the field of geography, some IR scholars have thus far also measured and analyzed distance only in absolute terms, by particularly making references to physical distances between different entities. For example, in 2001, Gleditsch and Ward “developed the first minimum distance database. This was a great move forward in the availability of distance data” (Pickering, 2012, p. 428).*


What is relative distance?


When it comes to the field of IR, Wohlstetter and Henrikson argue that the concept of distance is merely an “illusion” because technological advances have been increasingly “shrinking” the earth thus, minimizing the importance of the “physical spaces” that exist and separate nations (Wohlstetter, 1968; Henrikson, 2002). For that reason, they give the example that the U.S.A. was more ready to “fight a war in Indochina and, more recently, conduct military operations in southwest Asia – Iraq and Afghanistan – as part of a global war against terrorism” (Henrikson, 2002, p. 441).*


Even within the field of geography, Abler et al. say that since the 1950s, “relative location and relative distance” have started to be employed in order to help “define new kinds of stretchable, shrinkable spaces” (Abler et al., 1971, pp. 72–73). While these authors state that although relative location and space have “been examined in some detail and used to some degree for almost a century before that date,” “their use by a large number of geographers […] is a relatively recent phenomenon. The shift to a relative spatial context […] is probably the most fundamental change in the history of geography as it opens an almost infinite number of new worlds to explore and map” (Abler et al., 1971, pp. 72–73).*


To conclude, any last words regarding distance's role in our lives?


The concept of distance is fascinating and important to learn about, particularly because it influences and persuades us to do things, either consciously or unconsciously.


For instance, let us say that today you would like to have dinner with your parents but, due to distance you realize that you cannot do that because your parents live on another continent. Given today's level of technology, you determine that you cannot fly a large distance across the ocean to meet them during the evening and then be back home in time to go to sleep and go to work the following day. Another common example, can help explain the subtle, or almost unconscious influence that distance has on your purchasing choices. For instance, when you tell yourself that you 'have' to buy a specific product, you may not realize that you do that because of a marketing campaign that uses the concept of psychological distance in its efforts to unconsciously persuade you that owning that 'exact' product will make you feel like the version of 'you' that you 'should' or 'would' like to become.


To conclude, whether we like it or not, distance influences our lives, either consciously or unconsciously. To help avoid the latter case, it is best to educate ourselves about the role of distance in our lives. This will help ensure that we do not allow others to unconsciously persuade our choices. In this way, we will make sure to we live our lives not how 'others' persuade us to do but, the exact way in which we envision them for ourselves.



Thank you for reading.





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Note: The copy for this page has been created based on the author's opinions and on: (1) the references mentioned below, (2) the websites each quotation is referencing (or is hyperlinked to), and (3) several copy/paste excerpts from Sorina Crisan's PhD thesis: “The Politics of Intervention: The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making,” Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019. Each paragraph that is a copy/paste citation from Crisan's thesis ends with the star symbol (*). The excerpts from Crisan's thesis include minor editing changes, in order to fit the topic of this article.

Illustration by: Nadine Shaabana. Unsplash, courtesy of Wix.com photo gallery.



References (other than the ones hyperlinked in the above article):

Abler, R. F., Adams, J. S., & Gould, P. (1971). Spatial Organization: The Geographer’s View of the World. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.


* Crisan, S. I. (2019) The Politics of Intervention: The Role of Psychological Distance in Foreign Policy Decision Making, Geneva: Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.


Hamilton, R. (2015, March 1). Bridging Psychological Distance [online]. Available at: https://hbr.org/2015/03/bridging-psychological-distance [Accessed February 12, 2018].


Henrikson, A. K. (2002). Distance and foreign policy: A political geography approach. International Political Science Review 23(4): 437–466.


Lemke, D. (1995). The tyranny of distance: Redefining relevant dyads. International Interactions 21:23–38.


Murray, J. A. H., et al. (Eds.). (1978). The Oxford English dictionary: being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement, and bibliography of “A new English dictionary on historical principles” (Vol. 3). Oxford University Press.


Pickering, S. (2012). Proximity, Maps and Conflict: New Measures, New Maps and New Findings. Conflict Management and Peace Science 29(4): 425–443.


Rummel, R. J. (1975). The Dynamic Psychological Field. In Understanding Conflict and War (Vol. 1). Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.


Starr, H. (2005). Territory, Proximity, and Spatiality: The Geography of International Conflict. International Studies Review 7(3):387–406.


Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance. Psychological Review, 117(2), 440–463.


Wright, P. Q. (1955). The Study of International Relations. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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