Psychological Distance (Construal Theory)


What is it?

Often referred to as construal level theory, psychological distance is the cognitive space we place between our thoughts and an object. For example, we place a high level of cognitive distance between our own sense of self and wellbeing and the health of marine ecosystems because we cannot always see marine ecosystems. Psychological distance is problematic in that it often inhibits the motivation to take action.

Why is it important for behaviour change?

Sometimes prompting change can be stifled by the lack of strong effects we experience in our day-to-day lives. It is important to consider how often an actor may encounter direct or salient consequences to their behaviour when designing behaviour change strategies.


Spence, A., Poortinga, W., & Pidgeon, N. (2012). The Psychological Distance of Climate Change. Risk Analysis, 32(6), 957–972.­‐6924.2011.01695.x

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

Related Concepts

Availability bias

How could you apply this theory?

We attempt to reduce the psychological distance between individuals and the health of the natural resources around them by cognitively intertwining the wellbeing of individuals with the wellbeing of ecosystems. By making it personal the strategy seeks to increase the probability of positive action.

Example of theory applied

Climate change is a tricky thing to deal with because the effects feel so detached from our everyday lives.

I’ve been trying to get my father to recycle for five years now, but he claims he’ll never change because it doesn’t make a difference, he doesn’t believe in global warming, and the way he disposes of waste hasn’t change for forty years. One day my daughter, his granddaughter, looked at him and said, “Grandpa, I don’t like it when you don’t recycle because it hurts the environment and all the animals I love.” After that one statement my father is now an avid recycler and advocate for climate action.