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Take a step back

I’ve flown with British Airways a couple of times this year and I do look forward to their in-flight magazine Business Life.  The following article by Steve Martin is from the magazine, and I thought you might find it interesting.

Research shows that complex choices can be easier to make when viewed from a distance.  A common piece of advice for those dealing with a knotty issue is to take a step back and create some psychological and physical distance from the problem. This can be helpful in other situations, not just when solving complex problems.  Recent studies suggest that when it comes to selling products and services, asking your customers to take a step back when evaluating your product might actually help their decision-making.

To test how distance affects perceptions of how difficult a task is, participants in a research study were asked to read aloud a series of words that appeared randomly on a computer screen.  Some of the words were made up and hard to pronounce; others were straightforward. Immediately after reading each word aloud, they were asked to rate how difficult they found it to pronounce.  When it came to the difficult words, those who were asked to lean back in their chairs to create more physical distance between themselves and the screen had lower anxiety levels, and perceived that the task was easier.

The researchers then conducted another set of studies, this time asking the participants to choose from a range of electronic products that included cameras and computers.  For each product, they could either make a choice there and then, or defer their decision until later.  To add a sense of reality, the choices were made harder by making the product comparisons difficult to evaluate.  Researchers also ensured that there was no obvious cost benefit to one product over another.  As with the pronunciation tests, the results clearly showed that people who were told to lean back and compare the products from a distance found the task easier and were less likely to delay their decision than those who were asked to lean closer.  A simple manipulation of psychological distance had a significant influence on choice. Put simply, complex choices became easier when viewed from a distance.

So when it comes to helping people with their decision-making, asking them to take a step back and view your proposals from afar could turn out to be productive, especially if the decision is a complex one.

The results might also explain why, when you are agonising over a knotty problem in the office, the colleague who looks annoyingly over your shoulder at your screen seems to believe he can get to the answer quicker than you can!

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