Psychological distance cues in online messages: interrelatedness of probability and spatial distance

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Growing evidence reveals that people rely on heuristic cues when processing online information. The current research, by adopting a construal level theory approach, examined whether psychological distance cues within online messages influence message processing. According to construal level theory, spatial and hypothetical distances (i.e., probabilities, likelihoods) share an association based on psychological distance. Construal level literature suggests that people overgeneralize this association and attribute unlikely events to distant places and likely events to close-by places. The current research provides a novel test of this relationship in an online communication setting. In two within-subjects experiments (Studies 1 and 2), we presented participants tweets depicting likely and unlikely events, and measured whether they attribute them to spatially close or far sources. Confirming our predictions, participants utilized the psychological distance cues and attributed the likely tweets to spatially close and the unlikely tweets to spatially far sources. In two follow-up experiments, we tested the same relationship by employing between-subjects designs. In Study 3 where participants saw one spatial distance and both likely and unlikely tweets, participants formed the same association albeit less strongly and attributed the unlikely tweets to spatially distant sources. In Study 4, where participants saw two spatial distances and only one tweet, the expected association was not formed. Findings suggest that comparison of likelihood information is necessary to form an association between source location and tweet likelihood. The implications of psychological distance and a construal level theory approach are discussed in the context of online heuristics and persuasion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-80
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Media Psychology
Issue number2
Early online date18 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019


  • construal level theory
  • online heuristics
  • probability
  • psychological distance
  • spatial distance


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