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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Report on a Pre-registered Research Grant

20.08.2016, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

Psychological Distance and Coal Contagion
Jochim Hansen, Salzburg (Austria)

Psychological Distance and Coal Contagion

In this research project, we investigated how psychological distance influences goal contagion (the extent to which people automatically adopt another person’s goal; Wessler & Hansen, 2016). The EASP preregistered research grant gave us (that is, my doctoral student Janet Wessler and me) the opportunity to conduct this research. We therefore thank the EASP a lot for this grant that we used to compensate 220 participants for taking part in Study 2.
On the basis of construal level theory (Trope & Liberman, 2010), we predicted that people would be more prone to goal contagion when primed with psychological distance (vs. closeness) because they would construe the other person’s behavior in terms of its underlying goal. Alternatively, we also predicted a-priori that people primed with psychological closeness (vs. distance) would be more prone to goal contagion because closeness may increase the personal relevance of another’s goals—a process not mediated by construal level.
In two preregistered studies, participants read about a student whose behavior implied either an academic or a social goal. We manipulated (a) participants’ level of mental construal (or a goal focus, if you will) with a why/how mind-set task (Study 1) and (b) their social distance from another person who showed academic (vs. social) behaviors (Study 2). We measured performance on an anagram task as an indicator of academic goal contagion. In contrast to the construal-level hypothesis, the mind-set manipulation did not affect goal contagion in Study 1. In accordance with the relevance hypothesis, however, psychological proximity increased goal contagion in Study 2. This finding is in line with previous research demonstrating that psychological closeness to another person or another person’s goal might influence its relevance for the self and promote motivation and goal achievement (Leander & Shah, 2013; Peetz, Wilson & Strahan, 2009).
At first glance, our results seem to contradict recent evidence that psychological distance increases imitation of goals (Genschow, Hansen, Wänke, & Trope, 2016). In one study, participants watched a model pressing one of two keys on the keyboard with either the left or right hand across several trials (Genschow et al., 2016, Exp. 3). When participants were asked to imitate the observed behavior, they made more errors in pressing the correct key when the observed behavior was presented spatially near than when it was presented spatially distant, indicating that people are better able to focus on goals when imitating distant (compared to proximal) actions. Genschow et al.’s paradigm, however, differed from our procedure in two aspects that are theoretically important: First, in their paradigm participants were explicitly instructed to imitate the model’s actions. In our studies, the description of the model’s actions was presented as a task unrelated to the academic performance test, and thus spontaneous goal contagion was measured. Second, in Genschow et al.’s study the goal of the respective action (i.e., the key) was clearly given by the experimenter, whereas in our studies participants had to infer the goal underlying the model’s actions. Psychological distance may help people focus on a clearly visible and relevant goal when consciously trying to imitate the goal (i.e., concentrate on the central aspect of the situation; Trope & Liberman, 2010). In our study, in contrast, participants observed only goal-related behaviors without a distinct goal or explicit instructions to imitate. In such a situation, psychological distance may cause participants to construe the situation rather broadly, without a focus on specific behaviors but with a wider scope instead. With such a broad perspective on the model, a cognitive construal-based contagion with underlying goals may be less likely. However, a motivational process triggered by psychological distance did affect goal contagion: With increasing distance, the other person and her goal were less relevant and thus less likely to affect own goals.
As further insights of this project, it can be stated that representing the actions of the other person in terms of that person’s underlying goals (focusing on the “why”) did not facilitate the process of adopting the same goal for oneself: Manipulating a “why” versus “how” focus did not influence goal contagion. This finding could be due to the fact that goal inferences happen automatically (cf. Hassin, Aarts, & Ferguson, 2005). Thus, even participants in a concrete “how” mind-set may have inferred the goal of the observed behavior so that the manipulation did not add anything to this process.
Additionally, regarding psychological distance it can be stated that although distance usually increases abstract construal of behavior, it does not influence goal inference process. Quite to the contrary, it decreases relevance, which in turn decreases goal contagion. In most work in the scope of construal level theory that investigated the effect of psychological distance on cognition, emotion, and behavior, personal relevance was controlled for or ruled out as an explanation. However, our findings show that, so far, relevance seems to be the best explanation for the influence of psychological distance on goal contagion. We would like to draw attention to relevance as an important motivational covariate of psychological distance and suggest that researchers would be wise to control for relevance if possible when investigating the effects of psychological distance on construal level.

References
Genschow, O., Hansen, J., Wänke, M., & Trope, Y. (2016). Psychological distance modulates goal-based versus movement-based imitation. Unpublished manuscript, University of Ghent and University of Salzburg.
Hassin, R. R., Aarts, H., & Ferguson, M. J. (2005). Automatic goal inferences. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 129-140.
Leander, N. P., & Shah, J. Y. (2013). For whom the goals loom: Context-driven goal contagion. Social Cognition, 31, 187-200.
Peetz, J., Wilson, A. E., & Strahan, E. J. (2009). So far away: The role of subjective temporal distance to future goals in motivation and behavior. Social Cognition, 27, 475-495.
Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117, 440-463.
Wessler, J. & Hansen, J. (2016). The effect of psychological distance on automatic goal contagion. In principal accepted manuscript, to appear in Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology.