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If you want someone to help you with a task, one way to persuade them is to ask far in advance, because people usually don’t think clearly about future obligations.

The issue is psychological distance. People have a different perspective if something needs to be done this week versus two months or more in the future. “Our reference point is the self in the here and now,” says Nira Liberman, a social psychologist at the University of Tel Aviv. “The farther removed an object is from direct experience, the more abstractly we analyze it.”

In an experiment, Liberman presented people with tasks and asked them what thoughts came to mind. When “cleaning the house” was described as needing to be done in the distant future, people described it as “showing your cleanliness,” whereas in the near future, it was described as “vacuuming the floor.”

In the near future, people think about the situation in concrete terms. They carefully consider how difficult it will be and how much time will be needed to do the task (feasibility). In the distant future, they focus on how interesting the idea sounds (desirability).

Similarly, when participants in the experiment thought about buying a piece of equipment in the near future, they were more concerned about the cost than they were about how difficult it would be to use it.

The tendency to think about desirability first and feasibility second makes it more likely we will think of distant future events in abstract terms, Liberman wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

People also expect to do more in the future, and as a result, they may overcommit. “Individuals may consider any given activity in isolation and fail to take into account that this activity may come at the expense of some other activities they may want to engage in at the same time.”

 

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.

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