CLT, Near Mode, Far Mode, and Autism

This post is an exploration of a half-baked theory. Consider it as an optional thought technology, which you may choose to employ or not as it proves useful.

I have found this to be a worthwhile mental tool in navigating the neurotypical/allistic world as an autistic person. Whether it is "true" or "valid" or has strong predictive power is less important.

Content warnings, this post mentions (in the abstract) grief and pet-related tragedy, and links to a few websites that contain a mix of very good and exceptionally terrible ideas. And it is possible that merely being aware of this tool may change your brain and cause you to think in new ways, in case that is something you'd like to avoid.

CLT and Modal Thinking

Construal level theory is a model of psychological distance, the mental leaps that we make in order to reason about and experience that which does not affect the self directly.

As the authors put it:

People directly experience only the here and now. It is impossible to experience the past and the future, other places, other people, and alternatives to reality. And yet, memories, plans, predictions, hopes, and counterfactual alternatives populate our minds, influence our emotions, and guide our choice and action. How do we transcend the here and now to include distal entities? How do we plan for the distant future, understand other people’s point of view, and take into account hypothetical alternatives to reality? Construal level theory (CLT) proposes that we do so by forming abstract mental construals of distal objects. Thus, although we cannot experience what is not present, we can make predictions about the future, remember the past, imagine other people’s reactions, and speculate about what might have been. Predictions, memories, and speculations are all mental constructions, distinct from direct experience. They serve to transcend the immediate situation and represent psychologically distant objects. Psychological distance is a subjective experience that something is close or far away from the self, here, and now. Psychological distance is thus egocentric: Its reference point is the self, here and now, and the different ways in which an object might be removed from that point—in time, space, social distance, and hypotheticality—constitute different distance dimensions.

Research on CLT has shown an interesting effect. We evaluate and respond to ideas in radically different ways, depending on this perceived psychological distance. This difference can sometimes shift our reactions in ways that are surprisingly at odds with an "objective" evaluation. Consider the following statements:

Statement 1

The average lifespan of a felis domesticus kept indoors is 12 to 18 years. Outdoor cats live 5 to 10 years on average.

Statement 2

My cat just died. I've had her since I got her as a kitten in 2002. I can't believe she's gone.

Consider: which of these statements is more sad?

Even though the cat referenced in the second statement lived several years longer than the average cat lifespan, it feels sadder because it's phrased in a way that indicates it is close. It's not just "a cat", it's "my cat".

Furthermore, when primed with concepts associated with psychological closeness, we tend to use this "near mode" style of thinking. When primed with concepts associated with greater psychological distance, we tend to use "far mode" thinking.

In other words, the degree of sadness we feel about the shortness of cats' lifetimes has less to do with the length of said lifetimes or the number of cats suffering such an early demise, and more to do with whether we are primed to consider feline death as a near event or a far event, with respect to psychological distance from ourselves and our spheres of concern.0

Psychogical Distance, Modal Thinking, and Autism

This has a lot of interesting effects and impacts in how we go about our lives. Simply noticing the shifts in modality can illuminate a great deal about how and where we direct our attention, and how this impacts us.

All of the above is the work of professional academics who, for any of their human shortcomings, seem to have all done this work conscientiously. What follows is my own reckon, based on personal experience. I have limited confidence that it is "true" per se (though it would be an interesting area to research!) But I do know that I have gotten value from it.

Autistic people seem to have much greater variance regarding which ideas, phrases, and concepts trigger near-mode experience, and which trigger far mode. By comparison, allistic people seem to be much more consistent in this regard.

Priming Near vs Far (Intentionally or Implicitly)

There are countless layers of semantics implicit in most bits of human communication, and priming the listener to consider a subject at a given psychological distance is a lot of what's going on. The overlapping layers can get very subtle and interesting.

For example, it can be good to use "I-statements" to speak about our own emotions and needs in a difficult conversation. This signals that the speaker is operating in near-mode, and thus is a subject of empathy, while at the same time, permits the listener to receive the information in far-mode. We're not putting the statement "onto them", so to speak, so they are primed to consider it more abstractly, and feel less need to take it personally or get defensive. It's not an "accusation", it's a problem that I have and would like your help with.

A near-vs-far tug of war is also the reason for much of the linguistic techniques employed in politics and sales. It's why sales people will pepper their sentences with "today" and use your name repeatedly when talking about the problem their product solves, but then switch to complicated abstractions and payment options when it's time to discuss the price. They want you to feel the need to buy, and disconnect fro the pain of paying for it.

The same technique is how political leaders can inspire entire nations of otherwise sensible ethical citizens to commit atrocities ranging from environmental destruction to mass murder and genocide. We are shown graphic images and messages convincing us that they are coming for your family in particular, inciting moral panic. But when it's time to disclose how much horror our policies or military have inflicted, suddenly it's "casualties" and big numbers and maps of faraway places. "Won't somebody think of the children!?" takes on a sinister double-meaning; we are hypersensitive to imagined present-day threats to our children, but can casually ruin the world they're going to inherit, or bomb entire societies out of existence.

It's also the method behind the madness of a lot of corporate non-apologies. When we say "mistakes were made" and "we apologize if any harm was caused", we're distancing ourselves from the decisions and the harm they caused. This subtly signals that the speaker is unwilling to consider the situation in near-mode, which can of course be infuriating if the one being "apologized" to is dealing with some unpleasant near-mode effects. It's also why the "I'm so sorry!" part of most apologies can backfire; it centers the apologizer's feelings and demands empathy for their pain, when it should be the recipient's harm that is the focus!

My favorite example of absurd corporate distance-priming is the airport scene in Fight Club. "Of course, it's company policy never to imply ownership. We have to use the indefinite article."

When you've lost a loved one, one of the most brutally close and painful experiences humans have, and find yourself surrounded by friends and relations at a funeral, think about the things that they typically say. "She's in a better place." "At least he doesn't have to suffer any more." "They'll live on in our hearts." These are all attempts to move your thinking into far mode.

In fact, the entire experience of grief, with its stages and emotional rollercoasters, whether due to death or just a simple breakup, can be seen as a mind struggling to move a near-mode emotional experience into a far-mode memory, letting them become somebody that you used to know. Even after rage and depression subside, the casual thought that you should give them a call or the expectation to see them around the corner, coming from a habit of near-mode consideration, can show up and open the wounds all over again.

Near/far priming doesn't only need to be linguistic. We consider things like "warmth" to be near-mode, and "coldness" to be far-mode. If you want your audience to be primed to offer empathy and see you as part of their in-group, a person they do favors for and trust to help them out in return, give them a warm beverage to hold. (Perhaps this is why we so often serve coffee at business meetings?)

Autistic vs Allistic, Near and Far

This insight has helped me immensely in understanding and explaining my autistic experience, and the cases where I and the allistic people in my life seem to be living in entirely different universes. Tedious disclaimers, this is my own experience, etc., but I do believe it is a somewhat common autistic pattern.

Conceptual structures and systems are the farthest of far mode triggers for most allistic people. For me, I experience them quite like a part of my body. It wasn't until fairly recently that I realized when other software developers say they need to "feel out" a bit of code, they were speaking metaphorically. I mean that literally. I feel it with my mind like I'm manipulating the abstraction with a phantom limb.

While I of course care about being liked by others, for its emotional validation and instrumental value, it is an extremely far-mode thing for me, especially with regards to arbitrary social customs. I find it hard to care directly about popularity or social judgement in the way that most allistic people seem to. "Shame" doesn't make a lick of sense to me; I sort of understand it abstractly, but I'm not sure I've ever actually felt it. For most allistics, shame is an extremely powerful near-mode motivator, to the point where many find it difficult to imagine being moral for any other reason.

I am completely and unwaveringly insistent that employees are not property, which is not controversial for most people in the abstract. But for me, it does not feel "abstract". This has led to several conflicts in the past, when I vocally defend someone who leaves the company for a better job, even though it was really inconvenient for us, or fail to be upset when a rival "poaches" a member of our team. The assumption is that I must not care about my team, when nothing could be further from the truth. I just also care about the person leaving our team.

This also helps illustrate the fiery passion of someone like Greta Thunberg with respect to climate change. Sadly for the long-term viability of us human earthlings, most people view global warming as an extreme far-mode concern. For Greta, it is clearly present and visceral, as near-mode as it gets.

Few cases illustrate this divergence as clearly as the confounding (to allistics) autistic moral compass. As Myk Bilokonsky summarized

Autistic people are more likely to stick to their values, even in private and even when tempted with personal gain, than non-autistic people are.

Researchers of course framed this as a deficit.

What is fascinating to me is not so much the study itself, or the rather offensive way in which the autistic approach was framed, but the conversation that it sparked.

Psychological distance is an important load-bearing aspect of communication and interpersonal behavior, as it dramatically shapes how we think and feel. Because most allistics have more or less similar models of near vs far, it's nearly automatic in most cases for them to prime their communication partners in the manner that they wish. By simply speaking in ways that are natural for the psychological distance the speaker feels, in all likelihood the recipient of the communication will be easily primed to feel the same way, as it will tend to align with their own natural sense.

When someone treats a concern in near mode, which to you is far mode, it's often annoying. The speaker might seem overly sensitive or just... weird. "Cool story bro... you sure are into that, I guess." They might even do that "here we go..." sigh, half-smile, and side-glance to the others in the conversation to subtly commiserate about the weirdo they have to suffer politely. (If you are autistic, I'm guessing you know that look, and the social rejection that inevitably follows.)

However, when someone treats a concern in far mode, which to you is near mode, it's confusing. Perhaps even "doesn't he notice his hair is on fire???" confusing. The conclusion is that it's entirely NOT a concern for that person. "His head must be fireproof...?"

So, to take an example from above, Mary leaves our company to join Acme, Inc., our rival. This leaves us short-staffed, and scrambling to fill the gap. Such betrayal! We all know that Acme, Inc. is paying her more, and offering Mary a position that we don't have available, which she's wanted for a long time. Double betrayal! We trained her and then she walked out the door to do that job somewhere else!

From my point of view, the "betrayal" is a very abstract notion. Yes, it's inconvenient and I'd rather things were different, but that's just how it goes, people move on. The notion that someone would stick around even though working here isn't in their interest? That feels perverse to me.

So when I seem to be unphased by Mary's obvious betrayal, the allistics around me are left with some seemingly obvious theories:

In fact, I'm just more likely to identify with the employee themselves than the company, and genuinely wish the best for them. We all cheer when someone leaves another company to come join us, why would it be good in one direction, and evil in another? Just because we stand to benefit? Feels petty.

Autistic people make this error as well, when evaluating the priorities and behaviors of allistic people. In the conversation around the study above, you see autistic people wondering if allistic people "even have morals", just as the researchers theorized that the autistic participants were deficient in their concern for social pressure, and framed this as "inflexible".

In other words, rather than imagine that someone else views a concern in a different construal level theory modality, we tend to assume that either:

This almost never yields understanding.

No Monoliths

As the saying goes, "If you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person".

And this is part of that half baked theory. It's not that "allistics are this one consistent way, and autistics are this other consistent way". It's that allistics are largely consistent as a group, and autistics are extremely diverse, with respect to our application of psychological distance.

This is something I'd very much like to see studied in greater depth.

I've observed this cause problems among autistic people just like it does between autistic and allistic people, with many of the same assumptions and misconceptions as a result. What is brutally near-mode for one neurodivergent person may be extremely abstract and distant for another.

However, at least in those scenarios, I've found autistic people tend to have an appreciation for the experience of psychological distances being out of alignment. After all, that's the story of our life. And as is often the case, the tools we can use to get along with each other are the same tools that can prove useful in getting along in an allistic world, and vice versa.

Using Modal Shifts

Using this thought technology deliberately in practice takes a bit of work, but I believe it is worth the effort, for people of any neurotype who wish to understand people and work together more effectively.

  1. Know Thyself

    Practice identifying in your own mind and experience, when you are thinking in near mode vs far mode. Do you tend to spend more time in one than the other?

    The stereotypical (and likely wrong) autistic answer is to assume that we spend most of our time in far-mode. "I am cold untouchable robot, everyone says so, and that is safe and powerful."

    But I'd encourage you to consider those things that send you into a spiral of sensory sensitivity, rejection dysphoria, or whatever it is that brings you to the brink of a meltdown. That's some near mode stuff right there; most likely something that feels very close to you, but far to everyone else, and the resulting lack of support or acknowledgement can be frustrating to tears.

    What are the things that feel close? What things feel far away?

  2. Consider Alternatives

    Can you think about your near mode concepts in far mode? Your far mode concepts in near mode? This can be very challenging, because you're essentially asking your brain to think and feel differently than is natural for you.

    Try to identify situations and conversations where you did your level best to try to help someone, to be kind and considerate, but it all seemed to go sideways before you knew it, and they were hurt and angry, called you uncaring. Is it possible that you were acting from a far mode thinking style, while they were bringing you a near mode concern? What would it have been like to be in near mode in that sitation?

    On the flip side, identify those situations which are a Very Big Deal, and no one around you seems to care as much as they ought to. Is it possible that they are evaluating this situation in far mode, while it is near to you? What would it look like to consider the situation abstractly? How can you express your needs in terms that make sense to that far mode approach?

    What clues were they giving you about the mode they were in? What did they say or do, what did they pay attention to? How might you or they more clearly "primed" one another to get everyone on the same page?

  3. Practice Shifting

    Our minds will shift modes in response to priming. If you can identify these priming triggers, it's possible to willfully shift your own psychological construal level. You can bring the far near, and push the near away, by shifting the mental frame.

    As a safe practice, with plenty of time and space, alone and apart from distractions, consider an event or idea which is very far mode for you, but which someone else experiences in near mode. Imagine not just that it is happening to you, in the typical sense of "putting yourself in their shoes". Imagine that you care about it in the same way they do, as a near mode concern.

    Then turn it around. Consider something that is very close and visceral to you, and try to zoom out. What if you didn't care about it that much? What if it was happening to a character in a movie, that you were watching in the background? What should that character do? What would be optimal?

There is no such thing as a "correct" neurotype, or "accurate" cognitive modality. We all experience the world and ourselves with the minds we have, and these minds are modal, subtle, and complicated. But we can improve our ability to use these minds and make them work for us.

I hope that you find this tool useful.


0 The concept of "near mode" and "far mode" came to my mental toolkit by way of Robin Hanson1, summarized neatly in Near-Far Summary, and explored in several other Near-Far mode essays in the LessWrong community2. (Yes, I really did just put footnotes in a footnote.) back

1 Robin Hanson is a libertarian who often engages in a distressing pattern of saying outrageously offensive and hurtful things to rile people up, especially to "stick it to the liberals". That said, he has had some genuinely insightful ideas over the years, this being one of them. I do of course agree that platforming troubling individuals can do harm, but, well, people are complicated, and good ideas can come from a lot of places. back

2 See above disclaimer about Robin Hanson. Similar can be said about LessWrong. There are some genuinely good ideas there. There are also some really bad ones. back

3 Somewhat tongue in cheek, I've been looking forward to writing this for a while, but it is a thing I do more often than I ought to. And here I am publishing it several years later, since life got in the way, as usual. back