For psychologists, distance is not just physical space. It is also psychological space, the degree to which you feel closely connected to someone else. You are describing psychological distance when you say that you feel “distant” from your spouse, “out of touch” with your kids’ lives, “worlds apart” from a neighbor’s politics, or “separated” from your employees. You don’t mean that you are physically distant from other people; you mean that you feel psychologically distant from them in some way. You’ve developed different beliefs than your spouse over time and have “grown apart,” your kids’ generation is so different from your own, or you work in a large corporation with more employees than you can name. These two features of social life—the magnitude of the gap between your own mind and others’ minds, and the motivation to reduce that gap—are critical for understanding when you engage your ability to think about other minds fully and when you do not.
Distance keeps your sixth sense disengaged for at least two reasons. First, your ability to understand the minds of others can be triggered by your physical senses. When you’re too far away in physical space, those triggers do not get pulled. Second, your ability to understand the minds of others is also engaged by your cognitive inferences. Too far away in psychological space—too different, too foreign, too other—and those triggers, again, do not get pulled. Understanding how these two triggers—your physical senses and your cognitive inferences—engage you with the mind of another person is essential for understanding the dehumanizing mistakes we can make when we remain disengaged.