Not all consumers’ needs are the same 360 days a year, and not all products are available all the time. Products like Christmas presents, hotel rooms, and the choice of a university, can be purchased much in advance or close to the time of consumption. But our intuition tells us that it is not the same to purchase a hotel room for next week or for 5 months from now. Marketers usually consider just the obvious problems of temporal distance, like the risk of committing in advance to something without the freedom of changing your plans. However, there are other subtle psychological effects of temporal distance in consumer’s mind.

  • How temporal distance affects consumers’ perception of the consumption experience?
  • How can temporal distance influence consumer choices?
  • Can marketers use different strategies to market products for “distant” or “close” products?


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.



What is Temporal Distance

Temporal distance is just one factor of a complex construct called “psychological distance”, that has other dimensions (e.g., spatial, social, hypothetical). These distances come from the natural ways in which humans experience the world. Since humans were primordial monkeys, our minds evolved to classify things in a continuum between proximate to far away. This classification is important because distant things hold a different meaning in our daily life, and close vs. distant things are experienced by different senses. For example, a close predator has a different effect than a distant predator.


Temporal Distance and Concreteness

Psychological and temporal distance is not just an automatic object classifier, but it affects how concrete/abstract these objects are construed in our minds. In a nutshell, the theory states that: distant objects are construed in abstract terms, while close objects are construed in concrete terms. For example, imagine that every year you attend a conference in Paris. If the conference is 9 months from now you may think about it in general terms, thinking what Paris means, what it has to offer, and what experiences you may decide to do. However, if the conference is 1 day from now you would think of more concrete things, such as: how long the flight will be, how to reach the hotel, what temperature will be there.


How Temporal Distance Affect Decisions.

Temporal distance has many effects on the way consumers make decisions.

  • The importance of product attributes will change with time. For distant products, the important attributes are abstract, high level, and benefit-focused attributes. For example, the “relaxing” benefits of a trip to the Hawaii. For proximate products, the important attributes are concrete, low-level, and cost-based attributes. For example: how distant is the hotel from the sea on my Hawaii trip? In addition, close things are considered for each attribute, while distant things are considered for the whole ensemble of attributes (like looking at the tree or the forest).
  • The promotion/prevention-focus will change over time. Not only the importance of attributes changes with temporal distance, but also the framing of the attributes themselves, making them more promotion or prevention-focused. Promotion-focused framing looks at what one can gain from the products, while prevention-focused framing looks at what one can lose from the products. For example, relaxation can be framed as “gaining peace” (promotion) or being “hassle-free” (prevention). It turns out that consumers frame distant things for what they can earn (i.e., promotion-focused), while consumers frame close things for what they lose (i.e., prevention-focused).
  • Distant products activate different senses. The way our ancestors perceived the world was pretty simple: distant objects were perceived with sight and some smell, close objects were perceived with taste, touch, and internal body senses. If I told you that the food is 5 minutes away you would expect it to be perceived by sight and maybe smell, but if I told you that the food is ready right now, you would expect to perceive it with taste and touch. Research shows that this association applies also to the process of imagining product experiences. For example, a dinner one year from now is imagined with grey colors and mainly imagined through sight. But a dinner one hour from now is imagined in more bright colors and through the activation of taste and touch. The color activation is also important: close things are colorful, but distant things tend to be distant and undistinguished.


Consequences to Marketers.

  • Describe different attributes. Marketers in seasonal industries know the average distance between consumers’ and the consumption experience, and the average construal of consumers about the product. Therefore, they can create messages that match with the psychological construal of consumers. Take the case of marketing a hotel to college students for the spring break: if we are five months away from the spring break you may want to use an abstract construal like an “experience for excitement and fun”; if we are close to the spring break, you want to use a concrete construal like a “venue with pool, parties, and music”.
  • Use a different language. Related to the previous point, some descriptions can say the same thing but use different concreteness levels. For example, a hotel can self-portray abstractly as an “experience,” “service,” “entity,” or concretely as a “building,” “house,” “facility”. The careful use of these words can change the overall perceived abstractness and match consumer construal.
  • Use different colors in pictures. If you are using images, think about how much contrast/color you want on your pictures. Distant objects may be more persuasive if they are portraited with low contrast (like a scale of greys) pictures, but close objects may be more persuasive with high contrast/colorful pictures. In other words, the forest is grey, but the trees are colorful.
  • A seemingly opposite approach can be used if you want to change the perceived distance of the product from the consumer. In this case, you want to create a mismatch between description and consumer automatic construal. For example, if a consumer is waiting for an answer in a call center, marketers may want to make the consumer to perceive that the call is just a few minutes away to be answered. Therefore, they should use concrete words, describing most concretely how long the waiting will be (e.g., “the waiting time is 3 minutes”). Other abstract expressions will increase the perceived distance in time, having the opposite effect (e.g., “we will answer soon”). Be careful: if your goal is to be persuasive, and not to change perceived distance, the old rule applies: you want to match concreteness level with distance.


Takeaway message.

Distant things are perceived to be abstract, general, promotion-focused, and grey. Close things are concrete, specific, prevention-focused, and colorful. Marketers that match the perception of consumers with the temporal distance create more persuasive messages and have better performance.


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.




Wondered why you are more willing to accept a task if the deadline is far away? It is because you think just about the upside of the task and focus on the whole picture, like what the task will mean for your career or your network. However, when you are close to the deadline you are forced to think about the concrete elements of the task, like the costs and the process of delivering it. The closer you are to the deadline, the more you forget that the task will impact your general professional life and you will just focus the concrete (usually negative) short term consequences. The solution: when a task is presented to you, think about all the steps you will have to do every day to progress with the task in time for the final deadline. Think about the amount of work it will be for your day-to-day job: 1-2-3 hours a day? Then compare it to the benefits and decide if it is worth it. In other words, un-trick your mind thinking concretely for distant deadlines.




Lee, Hyojin, et al. “Monochrome forests and colorful trees: The effect of black-and-white versus color imagery on construal level.” Journal of Consumer Research 41.4 (2014): 1015-1032.

Liberman, N., Trope, Y., & Wakslak, C. (2007). Construal level theory and consumer behavior. Journal of consumer psychology17(2), 113-117.

Dhar, R., & Kim, E. Y. (2007). Seeing the forest or the trees: Implications of construal level theory for consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology17(2), 96-100.

Liberman, N., Trope, Y., & Wakslak, C. (2007). Construal level theory and consumer behavior. Journal of consumer psychology17(2), 113-117.

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2011). Construal level theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology1, 118-134.






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