In a time where many are practicing “social distancing” from the outside world, people are relying on their immediate social circles more than usual.
Does a sense of obligation – from checking on parents to running an errand for an elderly neighbor – benefit or harm a relationship?
A Michigan State University study found the sweet spot between keeping people together and dooming a relationship.
“We were looking to find whether obligation is all good or all bad,” said William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at MSU and co-author of the study.
“When we started, we found that people were responding to types of obligations in different ways.
People distinguished between requests that were massive obligations and requests that were simple. There’s this point that obligation crosses over and starts to be harmful for relationships.”
According to Jeewon Oh, MSU doctoral student and co-author of the study, obligation is sometimes the “glue that holds relationships together,” but it often carries negative connotations.
“We found that some obligations were linked with greater depressive symptoms and slower increases in support from friends over time,” Oh said.
“However, other obligations were linked with both greater support and less strain from family and friends initially.”
Chopik and Oh’s findings suggest that there’s a distinct point at which obligation pushes individuals to the brink of feeling burdened, which can start to harm their relationships.
“The line in our study is when it crosses over and starts to be either a massive financial burden or something that disrupts your day-to-day life,” Chopik said.
“While engaging in substantive obligation can benefit others and make someone feel helpful, it is still costly to a person’s time, energy and money.”
Until now, similar research showed inconsistencies in how obligation impacts relationships, which Chopik attributes to the spectrum of obligation.
This spectrum ranges from light obligation, like keeping in touch with a friend, to substantive obligation, like lending that friend a considerable amount of money.
“In a way, major obligations violate the norms of friendships,” Chopik said. “Interestingly, you don’t see that violation as much in relationships with parents or spouses.”
Chopik explained that friendships are viewed as low-investment, fun relationships that make people feel good.
“Our longest lasting friendships continue because we enjoy them. But if obligations pile up, it might compromise how close we feel to our friends,” Chopik said.
“Because friendships are a relationship of choice, people can distance themselves from friends more easily than other types of relationships when faced with burdensome obligations.”
Additionally, substantive obligations may create strain in a friendship as we try to encourage our friends to do the same even when they might not be able to do so, Oh said.
“Although we may feel good when we do things for our friends, and our friends are grateful to us, we may start to feel like we are investing too much in that relationship,” Oh said.
On the other end of the spectrum, light obligation creates what Chopik calls a “norm of reciprocity.”
According to Jeewon Oh, MSU doctoral student and co-author of the study, obligation is sometimes the “glue that holds relationships together,” but it often carries negative connotations.
“Those light obligations make us feel better, make us happier and make our relationships stronger,” Chopik said. “There’s a sense that ‘we’re both in this together and that we’ve both invested something in the relationship.’”
That’s why, among the best relationships, low-level acts of obligation don’t feel like obligations at all. Small acts of kindness, which strengthen the bonds of our relationships, are done without any fuss or burden.
Still, some types of relationships can make even minor obligations seem daunting. If someone doesn’t have a great relationship with a parent, a quick phone call to check in isn’t enjoyable, it’s an encumbrance.
“Even for things we would expect family members to do, some in the study did them begrudgingly,” Chopik said.
Chopik and Oh’s findings reveal a spectrum of obligations as diverse as the relationships one has in life.
“It’s the little things you do that can really enhance a friendship, but asking too much of a friend can damage your relationship,” Chopik said.
The acceleration of global economic integration, liberalization of worldwide trade and investment in and application of new technologies, new materials, and new crafts in modern industry are causing the categories and number of occupational accidents and occupational diseases to increase continually in numerous developing countries.
According to the statistics of the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are around 250 million production casualty accidents per year worldwide, with 475.6 accidents per minute on average. Among these, the death toll for production accidents and labor diseases totals about 1.1 million.
In addition, the ILO estimates that by 2020, the incidence of labor diseases in the world will double and the global occupational safety and health situation will present an obvious tendency to deteriorate.
The occupational safety and health situation in China will become increasingly austere—200 million workers are already currently suffering from the hazards of occupational diseases in varying degrees according to 2018 State Administration of Work Safety data.
Statistics from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security indicate that the working-age (16–59) population in China exceeded 900 million in 2017 and this number may stabilize at around 800 million up to 2035.
Occupational safety and health problems involve the core rights and interests of every worker. They not only affect the production activities in the working world, but also closely connect with the happiness of every family throughout society.
Occupational safety and health has typical attributes of public health concern. According to Spijkers and Honniball , public participation is conducive to the handling of public health concerns.
As a result, the development of the occupational safety and health cause is inseparable from the public society, because public concern and support directly determine the social atmosphere which confronts occupational safety and health problems.
However, the public tend to ignore occupational safety and health problems. In particular, in comparison with industrial accidents, occupational diseases and relevant symptoms are usually invisible to a large extent.
In this sense, it is necessary to probe into public attitudes and the response to occupational safety and health problems. By introducing psychological distance, this research was systematically and comprehensively designed to investigate public awareness of and attitudes to occupational safety and health problems.
Occupational health psychology has been preceded by over a century of inquiry in psychology, sociology, philosophy, and other disciplines regarding the conditions of work and the welfare of workers, organizations, and society .
In 1912, Bullough proposed the concept of psychological distance, and its scope of application gradually expanded from aesthetic principles to the social group field of study for the measurement of social attitudes , and later to the trade sector for the description of individual perception  and to the domain of social relations .
With growing attention from researchers, studies of psychological distance have gradually but continually expanded to other fields. Agnew et al. defined psychological distance as “individuals’ subjective perception about others and self-relation distance and resulting emotional experience after integrating all sorts of social information” .
Trope and Liberman deemed psychological distance to be “individuals’ perception about different time contexts, space contexts, social relations and possible event occurrence contexts at this very moment” .
Both of these explanations regard psychological distance as a kind of perception, and a kind of psychological construction made by individuals based on the interpretation and processing of objective information.
Psychological distance is used to explain people’s response mechanisms for object perception and assessment decisions. With regard to occupational safety and health problems, the public also perceive and make assessment decisions with a self-centered perspective.
For this reason, it is appropriate to start from psychological distance in order to discuss public intimacy with occupational safety and health problems.
In combination with relevant knowledge of psychological distance, this research builds up a four-dimensional structure for occupational safety and health psychological distance, starting from the dimensions of cognitive, emotional, expected and behavioral distance to explore public attitudes and responses to occupational safety and health problems.
Cognitive distance refers to public occupational safety and health knowledge status and degree of cognition; emotional distance refers to public emotional perception of the intimacy and degree of integration of occupational safety and health problems; expected distance refers to public perception of the future expectation of occupational safety and health problems based on existing tendencies or judgment experience; and behavioral distance refers to the public perception of participatory behavior in occupational safety and health governance. Against this backdrop, residents in six cities from eastern, middle and western regions of China were selected for investigation and acquiring information on public psychological distance intimacy with regard to occupational safety and health problems.
Furthermore, by analyzing the relationships and mechanisms of influence among cognitive, emotional, expected and behavioral distance, our research was designed to provide information for the further study of occupational safety and health problems in China. This research is significant for the promotion of occupational safety and health governance.
Implication Analysis of Public Psychological Distance towards Occupational Safety and Health Problems
Existing studies on occupational safety and health mostly concentrate on the structural aspects of the occupational safety and health system  and start from the perspective of state policy to prevent and solve occupational safety and health problems.
Although policy efficacy itself plays a vital role in the solution of occupational safety and health problems, the public has a more important status as the executor of policy. On the other hand, occupational safety and health problems may also be governed from the perspective of occupational safety and health supervision.
Relevant studies list the establishment of state occupational safety and health supervision agencies and the enforcement of effective supervision as an important move to ensure occupational safety and health .
It cannot be denied that supervision may be useful in urging practitioners to reduce unsafe actions and to normalize employee operation, but public attention on occupational safety and health problems is probably more persistent and stable because of endogenous factors (such as health, civic and responsibility awareness).
As demonstrated by academic studies, the public have a stronger sense of identity towards garbage regulation policies as a result of endogenous factors [10,11]. Existing studies do not start from the public perspective in order to observe their attitudes and response towards occupational safety and health. Therefore, no solutions have been made for the governance of occupational safety and health in essence.
Distance in natural science generally means the interval length of objects in space or time, while psychological distance emphasizes the importance of individual perceptions and comprehension of the environment as a kind of social cognitive theory. One of the core tenets is that people’s responses towards social events depends upon their psychological representation .
Individuals’ psychological distance towards objects reflects their intimacy with, and emphasis on, the objects and directly determines individual behaviors. Consequently, this research incorporates psychological distance into the study of occupational safety and health problems. Psychological distance manifests individuals’ intrinsic perceptions about intimacy. In this sense, public psychological distance towards occupational safety and health explicitly reflects their concern with occupational safety and health.
In the study of psychological distance, different researchers give interpretations from different perspectives. From the perspective of trade, psychological distance is defined as the factor which hinders or disturbs suppliers and consumers .
From an interpersonal relations angle, psychological distance is defined as individual subjective feelings towards intimacy or alienation generated from the sense of uncertainty about surrounding relations, subject to the discrepancy in status, values and cultural backgrounds.
In the field of organization management, psychological distance is defined as employees’ subjective judgments about distance intimacy, which predict and evaluate their behavior within the organization based on their degree of acceptance and actual degree of contribution. It is also used to describe the degree of conformity or integration between subjects and perception objects .
In all research fields, psychological distance in nature is a kind of subjective judgment. Likewise, in the field of public health, the public also makes subjective judgments about intimacy with or alienation from occupational safety and health.
Accordingly, this research defines psychological distance as a subjective, public intimacy perception with a resulting promotion of action and inclination based on the comprehension and degree of perception of occupational safety and health problems.
Structural Analysis of Public Psychological Distance towards Occupational Safety and Health Problems
At present, studies concerning psychological distance primarily exhibit the following four dimensions: spatial distance, temporal distance, social distance and hypotheticality. Spatial distance is defined as the distance between stimulant and individual in the spatial dimension; temporal distance is defined as the time between individual and present and target events in the past or future; social distance is defined as the intimacy or specificity of the relation between social objects and individual; hypotheticality is defined as the occurrence possibility of event, existence possibility of thing, or closeness degree to individual real life .
In their study of employee-organization psychological distance, Chen and Li grouped psychological distance into six dimensions: experiential, behavioral, emotional, cognitive, time-space and objective social distance .
For example, if employees felt close to organization time-space distance, they would like to stay in the organization (voluntary overtime). Otherwise, they might get out of the organization immediately after work. If employees felt close to organization emotional distance, they would have sense of happiness in the organization or otherwise suffer from pains and depression.
If employees felt close to organization behavioral distance, they might sacrifice their own interests to safeguard the interests of the organization. On the contrary, they would pursue their own best interests in the organization. This research proposes that public perceptions regarding psychological distance towards occupational safety and health also vary at different levels.
As demonstrated by research, public perceptions about objects reveal their focus on those objects. Li recruited urban citizens as research objects and deemed public perception to be the comprehension and degree of perception of public and social affairs .
In a study on residents’ focus on health knowledge, Dai et al. observed that the health knowledge aspects that concerned individuals the most were, in order of importance, food safety, chronic disease, infectious disease and psychological health, and that they accordingly developed pertinent health promotion strategies .
Given that public perceptions of occupational safety and health embody public psychological distance intimacy in occupational safety and health, this research illustrates public cognitive distance towards occupational safety and health as a measurement dimension of psychological distance, and highlights the assessment of the degree of public comprehension of relevant occupational safety and health knowledge.
Emotions are individuals’ attitudes and experiences regarding whether objective things have satisfied personal demands, and include love, pleasure, happiness, detestation, anger, or contempt. Emotion is the immediate reflection of relation intimacy.
As found by relevant studies, establishing psychological contacts can induce individuals to maintain similar emotional and even physiological states to others . This implies that when individuals keep emotional intimacy with others (or other objects), their focus on those objects can be inferred to some extent.
While studying the employee-organization relationship, Chen and Li used emotional distance to express employees’ emotional intimacy and integration perceptions about their organization .
In the same way, public perceptions of occupational safety and health problems also involve a certain degree of emotional integration. Such emotions may include a sense of depression or anger towards occupational safety and health problems that have occurred, or a sense of happiness and comfort resulting from the progress made with regard to existing occupational safety and health problems.
Hence, this research chose public emotional distance towards occupational safety and health as a measurement dimension of psychological distance, and emphasized the measurement of public emotional integration in occupational safety and health problems.
The term “expectancy” refers to an estimation regarding future events. From the perspective of realistic behaviors, expectancy is a process whereby subjects make specific behavioral decisions pursuant to a judgment made with collected information about the future.
At present, available studies about public expectancy mainly emphasize the macroeconomic expectancy management field. Bernanke held the opinion that currency policy is essentially about the problem of expectancy .
Public expectancy management has become the key content and core of the currency policy of central bank macro-control work . To describe the employee-organization relationship, Chen and Li put forward the concept of experiential distance to represent employees’ perceptions about future expectancies based on existing tendencies or experiences .
From this view, the public would also form some explicit perception about the future direction of occupational safety and health on account of acquired information related to occupational safety and health problems. This is known as the expected distance.
Behavior includes all purposeful activities of organizations or individuals, namely the conduct and actions of subjects. Qin and Jing started from the perspective of behavioral distance to explore behavioral difficulties in management, and their study provided a new channel for investigation of the harmonious development of organizations .
Chen and Li put forward behavioral distance to represent employees’ perceptions about organizational intimacy in terms of “favor-organization” behavior . Actions here specifically mean organizational citizenship behaviors, namely employees’ out-of-duty behaviors in favor of the organization, including personal initiative, helping behaviors and organization loyalty .
Similarly, this means that the public needs to have a relatively close psychological distance towards occupational safety and health in order to solve related issues. As a consequence, public behavioral willingness and responses towards occupational safety and health problems reflect their focus on occupational safety and health. Public behavioral distance towards occupational safety and health is a key indicator of psychological distance.
Structural Relation Analysis of Psychological Distance
Cognition determines the way that individuals perceive objects and has a significant influence on individual behavioral patterns. Researchers have conducted many studies on the relation between cognition and behavior. In the environmental studies field, Vringer et al. proposed that recognition of environmental problems and diverse insights about the role of environmental behaviors strongly influenced residents’ energy consumption behaviors .
According to Groot and Steg , environmental cognition, environmental knowledge and concern for the environment could significantly affect residents’ choice of travel mode. In education, Li and Liu explored the relation between left-behind middle school students’ cognitive emotion regulation and characteristics of dangerous behaviors, finding that passive cognitive emotion regulation was a risk factor for dangerous behaviors, while positive cognitive emotion regulation was a protective factor for dangerous behaviors .
Shao used the example of an emergency incident to probe into the rhetoric strategies and communication paths of news releases under the perspective of public cognition . Given that this research concentrates on public familiarity with occupational safety and health-related knowledge with regard to public cognitive distance towards occupational safety and health, the relation between knowledge and behavior is also a key concern of our study.
As demonstrated by research findings, knowledge has a significant impact on behavior, and related knowledge concerning specific behaviors is an important predictive variable for those specific behaviors .
Duerden and Witt also pointed out the significant correlation between environmental knowledge and individuals’ environment-related behaviors . As a result, this research speculates that there exists a certain relationship between public cognitive distance towards occupational safety and health and behavioral distance.
Research has also shown the significant influence of emotion on behavior [27,28]. Specifically, in their study of green purchasing behaviors, Kanchanapibul et al. restricted influential factors to emotional variables, concluding that the standardization path coefficient of emotion against green purchasing behaviors was as high as 0.489 .
Wang and Wu observed that positive emotion had a stronger influence on green purchasing behaviors than negative emotion, through further exploration of the correlation and inherent laws of emotion and behavior .
Cheng et al. discussed the relation between college students’ cognition and procrastination behavior and eventually demonstrated a positive correlation between passive emotion and procrastination behavior, and a negative correlation between positive emotion and procrastination behavior .
Accordingly, this research tests the hypothesis that there exists a certain relationship between public emotional distance towards occupational safety and health and behavioral distance.
As a psychological phenomenon, expectancy is another key factor that affects individuals’ behaviors. Hussain stressed that changes in future information lead to changes in economic agents’ expectations and further manipulates their specific investment, consumption, labor supply and other behavioral decisions in the current period .
The study of public expectancy has been widely applied in all fields. In the field of consumption, Zhai analyzed multiple forms of expression of residents’ negative consumption expectancies, including a reduction in income, growing expenditure in the future, and a rise in product price .
Subsequently, pertinent measures were proposed to regulate these negative expectancies so as to promote consumption behaviors. Consumption expectancy had a direct influence on consumption demand as the prerequisite for consumers to formulate and implement consumption behaviors.
In the domain of macroeconomics, Lu demonstrated the influence of public expectancy on the macroeconomy in a study of publically expected monetary policy effects . Therefore, this research speculates that a certain relationship exists between public expected distance towards occupational safety and health and behavioral distance.
In summary, there exists certain relation among the four dimensions of public occupational safety and health psychological distance. Public occupational safety and health cognitive distance as the basis can adjust emotional distance and expected distance, and play a decisive role in behavioral distance.
Furthermore, emotional distance can promote expected distance.
If the public have closer occupational safety and health emotional distance, they probably have closer expected distance and vice versa. Simultaneously, emotional distance can directly trigger behavioral distance, which means that if the public have closer occupational safety and health emotional distance, they probably show high willingness of concern, willingness of implementing, willingness of dissemination and willingness of donations to occupational safety and health problems and vice versa.
Expected distance can intensify behavioral distance. If the public have closer occupational safety and health expected distance, they probably have closer behavioral distance. The analysis of public psychological distance structural relationships with regard to occupational safety and health behaviors is shown in Figure 1.
Michigan State University