Construal level theory
Psychlopedia -- Key theories -- Macro theories -- Construal level theory
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Construal level theory explains some important findings. For example, employees are less likely to perceive a proposed initiative as desirable, if this development could be introduced in the immediate--rather than remote--future (Eyal, Liberman, Trope, & Walther, 2004). In addition, individuals demonstrate more self discipline, and can thus avoid temptations, after they consider why, not how, they will engage in various behaviors (Fujita, Trope, Liberman, & Levin-Sagi, 2006). Furthermore, individuals are more likely to negotiate effectively with each other-identifying an outcome that satisfies both parties-if they imagine their lives in the future or if the outcome of this dispute will not be implemented for several months (Henderson, Trope, & Carnevale, 2006).
According to construal level theory, objects, events, or individuals can be perceived as either close or distant. For example, an object might be nearby or remote in space (Fujita, Henderson, Eng, Trope, & Liberman, 2005). In addition, an event might unfold very soon or farther in the future (Liberman & Trope, 1998; Liberman, Sagristano, & Trope, 2002; Trope & Liberman, 2000, 2003). Likewise, an event might be likely, and thus effectively close, or hypothetical and unlikely, and thus effectively distant (Todorov, Goren, & Trope, 2007; Wakslak, Trope, Liberman, & Alony, 2006). Finally, an event might be experienced from the perspective of individuals themselves, and thus close, or from the perspective of an observer, and thus distant (Eyal, Liberman, & Trope, 2008).
The key premise of this theory is that distant objects, events, or individuals are classified or represented as abstract, intangible, unobservable, and broad concepts. In contrast, close objects, events, or individuals are represented with concrete, specific, observable, or discrete features.
To illustrate, consider a person who donates some cash to a charity. Individuals who perceive this person as distant--perhaps because this behavior was supposedly enacted many years ago--might conceptualize this act as "being altruistic". This description does not refer to any observable features, but is merely an abstract depiction of the event. In contrast, individuals who perceive this person as close--perhaps because the behavior was supposedly enacted an hour ago in the next room--might conceptualize this act as "contributing money". This description portrays an observable action, not an abstract concept.
When individuals refer to abstract concepts, they usually consider the core properties of an object, event, person, or proposal. When individuals focus on concrete features, they often consider peripheral qualities.
Consequences of construal level
Primary versus secondary features
When individuals conceptualize objects abstractly, because of a sense of psychological distance, they tend to focus on core or primary properties not peripheral or secondary features. For example, in a study conducted by Trope and Liberman (2000), individuals had to evaluate an object, such as a radio set. If the radio set could be purchased only in the distant future, individuals focused on core properties, such as the quality of sound, when evaluating this product. If the radio set would be purchased more immediately, individuals focused on peripheral features, such as the whether or not the clock was accurate.
Cooperation and altruism
When individuals adopt an abstract construal, they may also be more cooperative and altruistic. That is, they may be more willing to sacrifice their own needs to support a broader cause.
In particular, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, they can more readily inhibit their immediate needs to pursue some future aspiration; they are more sensitive to their overarching objectives. Second, because they focus their attention on overarching patterns, they may become more aware of similarities between themselves and other people; this sense of connection may foster cooperation as well.
Sanna, Chang, Parks, and Kennedy (2009) conducted a study that verifies this possibility. To evoke an abstract construal, participants were asked to consider why they should maintain their fitness. To evoke a concrete construal, participants were asked to consider how they should maintain their fitness. An emphasis on why, instead of how, orients the attention of individuals to the underlying rationale instead of the specific details, eliciting an abstract construal.
Next, participants were exposed to a social dilemma. They were informed that a lake contains 100 fish and profits will be confiscated if this number drops below 70. On each trial, participants caught 15 fish and needed to decide how many to keep. If they kept most the fish, they would receive an immediate profit but reduce the number of fish available. As predicted, when an abstract construal was evoked, participants were more willing to return fish. That is, they behaved more cooperatively.
Tolerance to other groups
When an abstract construal is evoked, prejudice seems to diminish, at least in some communities. In particular, if people adopt an abstract construal, they become more aware of their overarching values instead of their more immediate needs. Conservative people, for example, may become more attuned to the importance of justice and fairness. They may inhibit more immediate needs--such as the need to override their discomfort with change, uncertainty, and foreign communities.
Luguri, Napier, and Dovidio (2012) formulated and validated these arguments. In one study, for example, various words, such as dog, were presented. To evoke an abstract construal, participants were instructed to identify a broad category to which these words belong, such as mammal. To evoke a concrete construal, participants were instructed to identify an example of this word, such as Doberman. In addition, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they perceive fairness and justice as important as well as the degree to which they perceive themselves as conservative or liberal. Finally, the participants, most of whom were Christian Americans, were asked to indicate the extent to which they like other communities, such as homosexual people, Muslim individuals, Latino individuals, and African American individuals.
If a concrete construal had been elicited, conservative participants were more likely than liberal participants to express unfavorable attitudes towards these communities. If an abstract construal, however, had been elicited, neither conservative nor liberal participants expressed unfavorable attitudes towards these communities. This association between construal level and tolerance to other communities was mediated by the perceived importance of justice and fairness.
When individuals experience a sense of distance from an event or act, and thus conceptualize the episode abstractly, they are more likely apply broad moral principles when they evaluate behavior. That is, individuals tend to disregard any mitigating factors (Eyal, Liberman, & Trope, 2008). For example, they will perceive stealing as immoral and donations as moral, regardless of the context. That is, even stealing to support a family will be perceived as immoral and donations to secure credibility or power will be perceived as moral.
Specifically, in a set of studies conducted by Eyal, Liberman, and Trope (2008), participants were asked to imagine events that were perpetrated either the next day or the next year. For example, they were asked to imagine a family eating the meat of their dog that had died recently. This act was more likely to be perceived as wrong if undertaken the next year. That is, if distant in time, participants were more likely to apply the principle that family dogs should not be eaten.
Likewise, moral acts, such as adopting a child with birth defects, were perceived as more virtuous if undertaken the next year than if undertaken the next day. Again, if distant in time, participants were more inclined to apply the principle that adopting a child with birth defects is moral.
Amit and Greene (2012), however, showed that an abstract construal does not merely improve morality but determines which moral principles individuals apply. For example, when individuals adopt a concrete construal, they become more attuned to the specific features on an act. They would not, therefore, push one person off a bridge to prevent a train from killing five other people. They value their duty towards that person, called a deontological perspective.
In contrast, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, they become more attuned to the overarching consequences of some act. They would, therefore, push one person off a bridge to prevent a train from killing five other people. They consider the broader utility or consequence of this act, called a utilitarian or consequentialist approach. Consistent with this claim, if individuals performed better on visual memory than verbal memory--indicating they may be especially sensitive to sensory details and thus prefer a concrete construal--they were more inclined to adopt a deontological perspective. Conversely, when visual imagery was disrupted, individuals were not as inclined to endorse this deontological perspective.
As Fujita, Trope, Liberman, and Levin-Sagi (2006) showed, an abstract construal seems to enhance the capacity of individuals to exhibit self control--to resist temptations and to inhibit unsuitable inclinations. After individuals considered why, rather than how, they will engage in some activity, they preferred larger rewards in the future than smaller awards now. Hence, an abstract construal, which is evoked after individuals reflect upon why they will enact some behavior, elicits a pursuit of future objectives rather than more immediate needs.
Indeed, Fujita and Han (2009) showed that an abstract construal not only improves the capacity of individuals to inhibit temptations, but also affects the attitudes of individuals. Specifically, when individuals adopt an abstract rather than concrete construal, they form negative attitudes towards temptations.
To verify this proposition, in a series of studies conducted by Fujita and Han (2009), either an abstract or concrete construal was first evoked in participants. For example, in one study, a series of words, like dog, were presented. Participants were instructed to identify a category to which these words belonged, such as animal, or an exemplar of these words, such as poodle--to instill an abstract or concrete construal respectively.
Next, participants completed an implicit association test (e.g., Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz, 1998; see Implicit association tests) . In particular, a series of items appeared on a screen. Participants needed to press one button when the item was an apple, such as Fuji, and another button when the item was a candy bar, such as Twix. Furthermore, participants needed to press on button when the item was a positive word, such as love, and another button when the item was a negative word, such as murder. Some individuals perform this task more proficiently when the same button is assigned to both apples and positive terms rather than assigned to apples and negative terms. This pattern of performance indicates the individual associates apples with positive terms; that is, their attitudes towards apples must be positive.
After an abstract construal was evoked, individuals were more inclined to associate apples, rather than candy bars, with positive terms. Their attitudes towards apples were thus positive. Indeed, when asked whether they would choose an apple or candy bar now, they tended to select the fruit. In contrast, after a concrete construal was evoked, individuals were more inclined to demonstrate positive attitudes towards candy bars instead (for related findings, see Schmeichel & Vohs, 2009).
Likewise, as Fujita and Roberts (2010) showed, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, they are more likely to utilize strategies that enhance self-control. For example, after dieters reflect upon why rather than how to improve their health, an exercise that is intended to prime an abstract construal, they become more inclined to apply a strategy called choice bracketing. These dieters, for example, will choose which three snacks they will eat in advance rather than choose snacks just before they consume them--a strategy that has been shown to diminish the likelihood that people will yield to temptation. Similarly, an abstract construal increases the likelihood that people will punish themselves if they do not fulfill their goals.
Inhibition of activated or salient inclinations
Many researchers have assumed that an abstract construal tends to enhance self-control. Laran (2010), however, demonstrates that perhaps the relationship between abstract construal and self-control is more nuanced. An abstract construal does not always enhance self-control. Instead, an abstract construal will inhibit the activated inclinations of individuals. To illustrate, while people feel an urge to indulge in some temptation, such as to consume chocolate, an abstract construal will diminish the intensity of this inclination, manifesting as self-control. In contrast, while people feel the need to demonstrate self-control, an abstract construal will inhibit this inclination and, therefore, curb self-control.
Laran (2010) reported a series of four studies that attest to this notion. Specifically, in this study, participants completed the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearrange words to construct sentences. For some participants, words that were synonymous with self-control, such as exercises or diet, were embedded within these sentences. These words were chosen to prime the inclination to demonstrate self-control. In control condition, participants were not exposed to words that were synonymous with self-control. Next, participants were asked to reflect upon either how, or why, individuals pursue academic success--to prime an abstract construal or a concrete construal respectively. Finally, they were granted an opportunity to eat either healthy or unhealthy snacks.
If self-control had not been primed, an abstract construal increased the likelihood that people would consume healthy food: that is, an abstract construal fostered self-control. In contrast, if self-construal had been primed, an abstract construal diminished the likelihood that people would consume healthy food; that is, an abstract construal seemed to impair self-control. Presumably, an abstract construal diminished the intensity or salience of the activated inclination.
The second study applied different procedures to prime self-control and level of construal. If self-construal was primed, an abstract construal diminished the accessibility of words that relate to self-control, including regimen, exercise, and workout, as gauged by a lexical decision task. The third study utilized different contexts to assess self-control and level of construal but uncovered a similar pattern of results. The final study showed that different manifestations of self-control, such as saving money and eating healthy food, seem to coincide with overlapping systems.
Construal level might also affect the strategies that individuals apply to depict themselves favorably. Specifically, to demonstrate their value to someone else, individuals can utilize a variety of strategies or tactics. These strategies or tactics can be divided into two classes: direct and indirect (Cialdini, 1989).
Usually, when individuals apply direct strategies, they emphasize their personal achievements or qualities. They might highlight their qualifications, for example, or feign modesty (see Schutz, 1997). In contrast, when individuals utilize indirect strategies, they often emphasize their connections with someone else--or something else--that is often regarded favorably (Cialdini & Richardson, 1980). They might highlight they collaborated with someone who is renowned, for example, sometimes called basking in reflected glory (Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman, & Sloan, 1976).
In contrast to direct strategies, indirect strategies often allude to more abstract and intangible qualities rather than concrete and specific details. Individuals often refer to the concept of we when they refer to some broad class or team (Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman, & Sloan, 1976). This class or team is an abstract entity--not as specific and definitively as an individual person.
When individuals adopt an abstract construal, they should be thus more inclined to select strategies that refer to intangible entities. Hence, they should often apply indirect rather than direct strategies. In contrast, when individuals adopt a concrete construal, they should be more inclined to select strategies that allude to specific details. They should, therefore, tend to prefer direct strategies.
Carter and Sanna (2008) generated data that aligns with this proposition. In the first study, to manipulate construal level, they imagined meeting someone wither immediately or in three months. Next, they specified which statements they might present to form a positive impression in this person--who was a potential employer. Participants who imagined meeting the person in the future, which should induce the preference towards an abstract construal, were more inclined to apply indirect strategies.
Some evidence implies that a concrete construal should enhance conformity to social influence (Ledgerwood, Wakslak, & Wang, 2010). That is, when people adopt a concrete construal, they are more attuned to subtle cues in the environment. They are, therefore, more likely to change their behavior in response to cues, such as scowls from other people.
However, as Ledgerwood and Callahan (2012) argue, in some settings, an abstract construal may increase conformity to the norms of society. Specifically, if people adopt an abstract construal, they become more attuned to regularities or consistencies over time. They are, consequently, more aware of patterns of behavior that are common in specific communities, called group norms. An abstract construal, therefore, may foster compliance to these norms.
Ledgerwood and Callahan (2012) reported two studies that attest to this possibility. In one study, participants first read about a policy--to oblige bike riders to use a rear light during the night--that would be implemented either very soon, to evoke a concrete construal, or a year later, to evoke an abstract construal. That is, when people contemplate the distance future, an abstract construal is typically primed. Next, participants were told that other bike riders tend to endorse or oppose the policy. Finally, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they feel this policy is warranted.
In general, if an abstract construal had been evoked, participants opposed the policy if other people tended to oppose the policy and support the policy if other people tended to support the policy. Participants followed the norms of their group. However, if a concrete construal had been evoked, the attitudes of participants diverged from the attitudes of other people.
The second study confirmed this result, even after another procedure was used to manipulate construal level. Furthermore, this study showed that an abstract construal increased the likelihood that people would be inclined to vote, but only if they felt other people tend to vote. Arguably, when people adopt an abstract construal, they follow the prevailing group norms. In contrast, when people adopt a concrete construal, they may be more susceptible to the behavior or beliefs of just one person.
Congruence of goals and wellbeing
When individuals adopt an abstract construal, they are more inclined to perceive their goals, purpose, and striving as consistent with one another. Freitas, Clark, Kim, and Levy (2009) introduced a simple example to convey this proposition. Individuals might, for example, strive to both "excel at work" and "avoid unhealthy food". If a concrete construal is adopted, these activities do not necessarily cohere with one another. If an abstract construal is adopted, however, both of these activities could be integrated with the same broader aspiration, such as achieving competence.
To assess this possibility, Freitas, Clark, Kim, and Levy (2009) conducted a study in which participants first completed the behavior identification form (Vallacher & Wegner, 1989)--a procedure that established whether they tend to allude to tangible activities rather than to abstract conceptualizations when they describe courses of action. Second, they completed a measure, intended to assess the extent to which their goals are coherent. In particular, participants enumerated 10 personal goals, purposes, and strivings--and then specified the degree to which these aspirations facilitate or obstruct one another (cf., Emmons & King, 1988).
Individuals who adopted an abstract construal were more inclined to perceive their goals as consistent with one another. Furthermore, as another study showed, this abstract construal also coincided with positive affective states, even after controlling self esteem or meaning in life (Freitas, Clark, Kim, & Levy, 2009). Presumably, the concordance of goals, an experience that corresponds to an abstract construal, translates into positive emotional experiences.
Alignment to values
When individuals adopt an abstract construal, rather than a concrete construal, their behavior is more likely to align to their values. People who value honestly may be more sincere, and people who value human rights may be more compassionate, after an abstract construal is primed.
In particular, when people adopt an abstract construal, they are more sensitive to overarching patterns of behaviour instead of specific duties. Values correspond to overarching patterns of behaviour. Therefore, if an abstract construal is primed, individuals are more attuned to their values and, therefore, more likely to initiative behaviors that align to these priorities.
Eyal, Sagristano, Trope, Liberman, and Chaiken (2009) unearthed some findings that substantiate this premise. For example, in one study, participants completed a questionnaire that gauges which of 25 values they endorse, such as tradition, friendship, power, obedience, or wealth. Days later, participants read a series of vignettes. For example, in one vignette, the participants discover that a family reunion will be convened in another state. The participants need to decide whether they will attend. Each of these vignettes assessed behaviors that relate to one of the 25 values.
Some of the vignettes described more immediate events, such as a reunion this weekend, and therefore most likely evoked a concrete construal. Other vignettes described more remote events, such as a reunion several months away, and therefore most likely evoked an abstract construal.
If a concrete construal had been evoked, the actions that participants chose diverged from the values they had endorsed earlier. In contrast, if an abstract construal had been evoked, the actions that participants chose aligned closely to these values.
Biased perceptions of expertise
An abstract construal can also amplify the illusion of explanatory depth--the tendency of individuals to overestimate the extent to which they understand a concept (Alter, Oppenheimer, & Zemla, 2010). Individuals who tend to adopt a concrete construal, in which they orient their attention to specific details rather than intangible concepts, are not as inclined to demonstrate this bias. Furthermore, when this concrete construal is primed, this bias diminishes (Alter, Oppenheimer, & Zemla, 2010).
In one study, participants rated the extent to which they feel they understood various mechanical operations, such as a bicycle lock, sewing machine, and zipper, on a seven point scale. They were informed that a seven implies complete understanding of all the pieces and functions. A four implies knowledge of the basics only. They were then instructed to describe the operations of these devices to someone else. Finally, they again rated the extent to which they understood these devices. If they diminished their ratings after writing about the devices, they were assumed to have shown the illusion of explanatory depth. In addition, participants completed the Behavioral Identification Form, to assess their spontaneous construal level.
If participants tended to adopt a concrete construal, the illusion of explanatory depth diminished (Alter, Oppenheimer, & Zemla, 2010). That is, if people adopt an abstract construal, they merely orient their attention to the overall function or purpose of a device. They do not consider the various components. Hence, they might underestimate the ignorance of these components.
Coping with negative experiences
After individuals experience a negative event, such as the death of a family member, they might ruminate about this episode. That is, they might, in essence, relive this event many times, as if they were experiencing the anguish and distress again. These ruminations tend to be ineffective, compromising well-being (e.g., Smith & Alloy, 2009).
In contrast, after these events, some individuals reflect more systematically and adaptively on these episodes. These reflections tend to uncover insights, ultimately facilitating recovery (e.g., Wilson & Gilbert, 2008).
When individuals distance themselves from some event, they are more inclined to reflect on this episode rather than ruminate, enhancing their capacity to recover. That is, if individuals consider this event from the perspective of someone else, as if detached from the episode themselves, reflection prevails and coping improves. In contrast, if individuals feel immersed in this event as they remember the episode, rumination prevails and coping is inhibited. Indeed a variety of experimental (e.g., Kross & Aydyk, 2008) and correlational studies (e.g., Ayduk & Kross, 2010) have substantiated this proposition.
To illustrate, in the study conducted by Ayduk and Kross (2010), individuals reflected upon a previous event in which they felt rejected. The extent to which they observed this event from the perspective of an observer was assessed as was their inclination to avoid thinking about the event. Furthermore, the emotions they experienced when they deliberated over this event was assessed. Finally, whether the individuals tended to merely recount the event or reconstruct the episode, experiencing insight and realization, was determined, by asking individuals to report their thoughts. The same questions were then assessed seven weeks later.
As hypothesized, when individuals considered the event from the perspective of someone else, experiencing a sense of distance from the episode, they seemed to recover more effectively. They were more likely to reconstruct, instead of merely recount, the event. They were also less inclined to experience negative emotions, or intrusive memories, while contemplating the episode.
Subsequent studies also showed that reflection did not increase the likelihood of avoidance. If individuals distanced themselves from this event, envisaging the perspective of someone else, they did not demonstrate avoidance. They did not, for example, endorse items like "I tried to remove (the event) from memory". Similarly, when individuals imagined the event from the perspective of someone else, the time they dedicated to this reflection did not diminish--another indication they did not avoid the episode. Finally, this tendency of individuals to distance themselves from the event was unrelated to whether they reappraised or suppressed the event but positively related to collaborative behavior during conflicts (e.g., Ayduk & Kross, 2010).
Regulation of mood in depressed individuals
Usually, after people remember achievements or other pleasant events in their past, their mood improves. However, the benefit of these memories is not observed in depressed individuals. That is, memories of positive events do not, in general, significantly improve mood in people who are depressed.
Arguably, depressed individuals tend to adopt an abstract, rather than concrete, construal. Consequently, memories of positive events are not concrete and, therefore, do not seem salient or recent. Indeed, people may feel these positive events seem distant, highlighting the difference between past enjoyment and more recent distress.
As this argument implies, memory of positive events could improve the mood of depressed individuals, provided they adopt a concrete construal. A study that was conducted by Werner-Seidler and Moulds (2012) corroborates this possibility. In this study, individuals who reported elevated levels of depression watched an upsetting film clip. Next, they were told to remember a positive event in their lives, such as an achievement. In addition, they were told to consider the causes, consequences, and meaning of this event, purportedly evoking an abstract construal, or to replay the scene in their head like a movie, purportedly evoking a concrete construal. As predicted, positive memories improved mood, but only if a concrete construal had been evoked.
When individuals adopt an abstract construal, they experience a sense of self clarity (Wakslak & Trope, 2009). That is, they become less cognizant of contradictions and conflicts in their personality. Presumably, after an abstract construal is evoked, individuals orient their attention towards more enduring, unobservable traits (cf. Nussbaum, Trope, & Liberman, 2000). As a consequence, individuals become more aware of their own core, enduring qualities--shifting attention away from their peripheral, and sometimes conflicting, characteristics.
To illustrate, in one study, some of the participants contemplated their most important value to affirm the self, which putatively evokes an abstract construal (Wakslak & Trope, 2009). After this manipulation, they completed a measure of self clarity, developed by Campbell, Trapnell, Heine, Katz, Lavalee, and Lehman (1996). After their most important value was considered, participants were less inclined to endorse questions such as "I seldom experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality" and "My belief about myself seems to change very frequently".
Resilience of self esteem
As Vess Arndt, and Schlegel (2011) showed, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, instead of a concrete construal, their self esteem is not as susceptible to negative feedback. That is, they can maintain their self esteem, even in the aftermath of criticism.
In one study, for example, the self esteem of individuals was tested on one session. Weeks later, an abstract construal was evoked in some participants. That is, a series of words, such as pasta, was presented. They were asked to answer the question "This word is an example of what", orienting thoughts to broad abstract categories. A concrete construal was evoked in other participants. These individuals answered the question "An example of this word is what", orienting attention to specific exemplars.
Next, participants completed the remote associates task, putatively to predict their success at work in the future. Some individuals were told they performed in the top 13%. Other individuals were told they performed in the bottom 13%. Finally, self esteem was measured again.
If an abstract construal had been evoked, the self esteem of individuals was more resilient. Self esteem was not greatly affected by the feedback--a desirable tendency after people receive negative feedback although perhaps undesirable in people with depression who may not respond to praise. When people adopt an abstract construal, their perception of themselves depends on how they regard their behavior in all contexts. Feedback about specific contexts is not as likely to influence their self esteem (for other traits that affect this resilience, see optimal self esteem).
Updegraff, Emanuel, Suh, and Gallagher (2010) uncovered a similar pattern of results. In one study, participants were instructed to describe themselves. Judges rated the degree to which these descriptions were abstract or concrete. If abstract, self-esteem did not vary appreciably over time, as uncovered by a diary study. In a subsequent study, participants were asked to reflect upon broad descriptions of themselves or specific activities--to evoke an abstract or concrete construal reflectively. Again, an abstract construal was associated with stability of self-esteem over time.
Dejection and dysphoria
Although an abstract construal may increase resilience in self-esteem, a concrete construal can also enhance some features of mental health. In short, an abstract construal may diminish anxiety, but a concrete construal can diminish dejection and dysphoria.
Specifically, consistent with reactive approach motivation (Nash, McGregor, & Prentice, 2011), when people feel threatened by more immediate hazards, provoking anxiety, a shift of attention to abstract goals can alleviate these feelings. An abstract construal, therefore, may ameliorate anxiety and similar emotions.
However, as Jacoby, Brewin, and Watkins (2008) highlight, people often feel dysphoric or sad about themselves because they do not confine their problems to concrete settings. They might perceive themselves as "stupid" rather than "unable to answer a trivia question last Wednesday". Consequently, they perceive their problems as pervasive, evoking dysphoria or even depression. A concrete construal, therefore, may overcome this problem, ameliorating dejection and similar emotions.
As Jacoby, Brewin, and Watkins (2008) showed, when individuals are prompted to identify a specific context in which a problem unfolded, their dejection tends to dissipate. Specifically, in one study, to evoke dysphoria, participants listened to sad music and wrote about a time in which they felt depressed. Next, participants needed to rearrange words to construct sentences. For half the participants, some of the sentences prompted questions about the context of their mood, such as "Have all my past feelings changed with time". These sentences highlighted that mood can vary across contexts. Finally, mood was measured at various times during this session.
After rearranging sentences that prime the context, the dysphoria of these patients diminished. These findings are consistent with the notion that a concrete construal may reduce dejection.
Shame and guilt
A sense of distance tends to diminish the intensity of some, but not all, negative emotions. In particular, this sense of distance may curb anger and sadness but not guilt and shame. When people experience guilt and shame, they evaluate themselves as well as consider their behavior from the perspective of someone else. A sense of distance diminishes sensitivity to personal evaluations but increases sensitivity to the perspective of someone else. These two effects of distance can nullify each other.
Katzir and Eyal (2013) collected evidence that verifies this possibility. In their study, participants first imagined an event that provoked a specific emotion, such as anger or guilt. In addition, they relived this event either from their own perspective or from the perspective of someone else. Finally, participants indicated the intensity of their emotions. A sense of distance reduced the intensity of anger but not guilt. A similar study showed that a sense of distance can reduce the intensity of sadness but not shame.
An abstract construal might also curb anger. In a study conducted by Ray, Wilhelm, and Gross (2008), participants were instructed to write about a recent episode, such as a conflict, that provoked anger. Some participants wrote about this event from their own perspective, almost reliving the experience. Other participants wrote about this event from the perspective of another person, like a mediator observing the conflict.
If participants reflected upon this event from the perspective of an independent person, they were more likely to use words like "realize", "discover", "change", "difference", or other terms that correspond to change or insight during the description (for more information, see Word count method). Furthermore, they were less likely to experience anger.
Conceivably, when individuals consider an event from the perspective of someone else, they tend to adopt an abstract construal (e.g., Broemer, Grabowski, Gebauer, Ermel, & Diehl, 2008). This abstract construal enables individuals to identify broad themes that underpin several distinct issues. As a consequence, they experience insight, which can ultimately curb emotional distress (see Writing about traumas).
In general, an abstract construal improves creativity. For example, in a study conducted by Forster, Friedman, and Liberman (2004), participants needed to identify many creative, novel reasons for individuals to greet another person, such as to practice an accent. Some participants had previously reflected upon the remote future, which evokes an abstract construal. Other participants had previously reflected upon their immediate future, which is more likely to elicit a concrete construal. Participants uncovered more creative answers after an abstract, rather than concrete, construal was elicited.
Attentional tuning theory (Friedman & Forster, 2008), which is underpinning by construal level theory, was formulated to explain the finding that an abstract construal enhances creativity thinking and a concrete construal enhances analytic thinking (e.g, Friedman & Forster, 2005; Ward, 1995). Specifically, according to this theory, an abstract construal activates a broader array of concepts and inclinations. That is, when an abstract construal is adopted, broad categories become salient, and all the exemplars of this category become partially activated. Hence, an abstract construal will underscore a more diverse array of possibilities and associations with the immediate problem, facilitating creativity.
In addition to temporal distance, studies have also shown that spatial distance enhances creativity, consistent with this model. For example, when individuals assume that a task they are completing will be assessed by students far away, and therefore experience an abstract construal, their creative performance improves.
For example, in one study, conducted by Jia, Hirt, and Karpen (2009), participants were asked to list as many modes of transportation as possible. They were told this test was developed by students at a university, who would like to collect the data to validate the procedures. If individuals were told this university is far away, rather than nearby, their responses to this question were more creative. That is, they suggested more original and diverse modes of transportation. A similar procedure also showed that spatial distance enhances performance on insight questions as well.
In contrast, the application of logical rules, called analytic thinking, improves when individuals adopt a concrete construal (cf., Derryberry & Reed, 1998). In particular, a concrete construal ensures that individuals do not confuse similar, but distinct, rules.
Recognition and appreciation of creative ideas
Sometimes, creative solutions and innovative proposals are rejected prematurely. Many innovations were initially perceived as uncreative and unlikely to be effective or useful. As Mueller, Wakslak, and Krishnan (2014) showed, when individuals adopt an abstract rather than concrete construal, they are more likely to recognize and appreciate, rather than dismiss and denigrate, creative solutions.
In one study, participants read about a running show that applies nanotechnology to improve fit, diminishing the likelihood of blisters. They were informed the idea was generated either far away, to induce an abstract construal, or nearby, to induce a concrete construal. Next, they rated the degree to which they perceive this idea as creative, unique, novel, and useful. Finally, they answered some questions that gauge the degree to which they feel certain about the success or potential of this idea. Ideas that purportedly were generated far away were perceived as more creative,
Subsequent studies extended this finding. For example, one study showed that an abstract construal increases ratings of creativity only when the solution is indeed creative rather than uncreative, as determined by pilot studies. In addition, these findings were replicated even when other procedures were utilized to manipulate construal level, such as asking participants why or how individuals undertake various activities, like driving a car. Finally, some evidence indicated that feelings of uncertainty may mediate the association between construal level and ratings of creativity.
Presumably, when individuals adopt an abstract rather than concrete construal, their attention is oriented to a broader variety of cues, facilitating creativity. Consequently, an abstract construal tends to be associated with an orientation to novel cues. Solutions that seem novel, therefore, resonate with an abstract construal and thus seem more suitable rather than inappropriate.
Awareness of the causes or consequences of events
When people adopt an abstract rather than concrete construal, they become more inclined to shift their attention to the causes, instead of the consequences, of events. Causes tend to be perceived as more central or integral to events. Consequences or effects are perceived as more peripheral, because they are dependent on the causes. An abstract construal tends to orient attention to more central or integral qualities and, therefore, should prime causes instead of consequences. Likewise, an abstract construal instills a sense of psychological distance. When people experience a sense of distance from an event, they can afford to consider the causes. When people are more entrenched in an event, they need to consider the more immediate consequences.
Rim, Hansen, and Trope (2013) conducted a series of nine studies that establish this association between an abstract construal and an orientation to causes. For example, in one study, after participants were instructed to consider the causes of various events, such as a tooth cavity, they were more likely to adopt an abstract construal, as measured by the behavioral identification form. In contrast, after participants were instructed to consider the consequences of these events, they were more likely to adopt a concrete construal.
In a second study, to evoke an abstract construal, participants were asked to identify the category in which various words, such as dog, below. To evoke a concrete construal, participants were asked to identify an exemplar or example of these words. Next, participants identified three causes and three consequences of various events, such as fatigue. If an abstract rather than concrete construal had been evoked, participants claimed they could more readily identify the three causes instead of the three consequences.
Subsequent studies replicated and extended these findings. For example, as one study showed, participants can more readily identify the causes of remote events and the consequences of more immediate events. Another study showed that people are inclined to end fragments like "Ray kissed Mary" with references to causes, such as "because he loved her", rather than with references to consequences, such as "And Mary kissed him back" if the sentences related to other individuals instead of themselves. Sentences about other people elicit a sense of distance and thus prime an abstract construal. In another study, references to causes, instead of consequences, increased the perceived temporal distance of an event.
In general, an abstract construal can facilitate negotiations (e.g., Henderson, Trope, & Carnevale, 2006). Henderson (2010), for example, showed that individuals negotiate with each other more effectively--that is, they are more likely to uncover a solution they both appreciate--if they are located in separate neighborhoods or states rather than in the same block or building. That is, if individuals are located in different regions, they experience a sense of distance from one another. This sense of distance evokes an abstract construal. Because of this abstract construal, the individuals can uncover a variety of means to fulfill the same underlying interests. This flexibility enables individuals to unearth offers that suit both parties.
Henderson (2010) conducted a series of studies to substantiate this possibility. In one study, participants negotiated with each other over computer. Some participants were informed they were located thousands of feet away from each other, presumably evoking an abstract construal. Other participants were informed they were located only a few feet away, presumably evoking a concrete construal.
If told they were located thousands of feet from each other, their negotiations were more effective. The joint outcome was optimized. As a subsequent study showed, however, this effect of distance diminished if an abstract construal had already been elicited. Presumably, in this condition, participants experienced an abstract construal regardless of whether the other party was located nearby or far away.
Similarly, as De Dreu, Giacomantonio, Shalvi, and Sligte (2009) showed, a more abstract or global perspective may enhance the capacity of individuals to withstand and to overcome obstacles during negotiations. If individuals need to negotiate about several issues, they are both more likely to be satisfied with the outcome of this negotiation if they delay the most contentious topics. To illustrate, when a manager and employee needs to negotiate about work conditions, such as vacation leave, start date, salary, and annual pay rise, they could begin with the issues that are vital to one person but not the other person. These issues can be more readily resolved, because the individuals can apply a technique called logrolling. That is, the individuals can sacrifice their position on the issues they regard as unimportant to gain on issues they regard as very important. Once these issues are resolved, trust improves, and a positive mood prevails. When individuals experience this positive mood, their thoughts focus on more abstract, intangible possibilities, which can enhance flexibility. Because flexibility has improved, they can subsequently resolve some of the more intractable issues.
When individuals need to negotiate with someone, they should first attempt to establish the priorities of this person. They might express their own priorities, with statements like "I am more concerned with vacation and pay rises than salary or the start date". Next, they can attempt to engage in logrolling. That is, the individuals can sacrifice their position on the issues they regard as unimportant to gain on issues they regard as very important. Once this trust is established, they can then discuss thornier issues.
The benefits of an abstract construal are consistent with the practical implications and recommendations of Uly (2000) on how to negotiate effectively and resolve conflicts. According to Uly (2000), the function of mediators is to invite both parties to recognize the broader perspective and their shared values, consistent with this abstract construal. He recommends the Abraham path, in which people traverse through the cities that correspond to the life of Abraham. During this journey, they realize the common values and stories that unite distinct religious organizations in the area.
Construal level can also influence the extent to which a statement appears to be truthful. In particular, as Hansen and Wanke (2010) showed, concrete statements tend to seem more truthful than abstract statements. That is, in general, concrete statement are more vivid and, therefore, processed more fluently. This fluency tends to facilitate the perceived credibility of a message (see also Fluency and the hedonic marking hypothesis).
Nevertheless, statements that fit the primed construal level of participants are also more likely to be perceived as truthful. That is, if a person adopt a concrete construal, instead of an abstract construal, concrete statements are especially likely to be perceived as credible.
Hansen and Wanke (2010) conducted a series of studies that validate these two principles. Participants read a series of statements. Sometimes, the statements were concrete, such as "The Naab flows into the Danube". On other occasions, the statements were abstract, such as "The Naag is a confluent of the Danube"; "flows" is more concrete and easier to imagine than "is". Participants needed to judge the likelihood the statements were true.
Concrete statements were judged as more likely than abstract statements in general. If a concrete construal was induced as well, this effect was especially pronounced.
In many instances, a sense of distance has been shown to facilitate variants of wisdom. In one study, conducted by Kross and Grossmann (2012), American participants were asked to describe the impact of the existing recession and rising unemployment on their own career prospects. To induce a sense of distance, some participants were asked to imagine the events unfolding from the perspective of a distant observer. In the control group, participants imagined the event from their own perspective, as if happening to them right now. They were also asked to indicate their mood. Two independent judges later rated the degree to which these descriptions epitomize dialecticism, in which they recognize the future is likely to change and the world is in flux, and intellectual humility, in which they recognize the limits of their knowledge. If a sense of distance was induced, participants were more likely to exhibit both dialecticism and intellectual humility. Mood did not mediate these effects.
A second study was similar, besides a few amendments. First, to induce a sense of distance, American participants imagined living in Iceland instead. Second, participants indicated the degree to which they would like to join a bipartisan group that discusses political issues, regarded as a measure of openness to diversity. A sense of distance not only enhanced wisdom, as measured by dialecticism and intellectual humility, but also increased openness to interactions with diverse perspectives. Presumably, this sense of distance enables people to transcend their egocentric perspective and consider other complications they cannot observe directly.
As Stephan, Liberman, and Trope (2009) showed, an abstract construal is also associated with polite and courteous behavior. In particular, when people adopt an abstract construal, they tend to behave more politely. Furthermore, when exposed to polite behavior, individuals are more inclined to adopt an abstract construal.
This association can be ascribed to the connection between polite behavior and social distance. To demonstrate, when people are close to each other, they understand one another well. From subtle cues, they can decipher whether the other person is cooperative and honest. When people feel distant to one another--perhaps because they belong to different ethnicities or social echelons--they do not understand each other well. They cannot readily decipher whether the other person is cooperative and honest. So instead, they need to depend on cues that are universal to most cultures, such as courteous and polite language. They become more inclined to behave politely and value courtesy.
Over time, therefore, people tend to behave politely when they feel a sense of distance. According to construal level theory, this distance coincides with an abstract construal. Therefore, politeness and an abstract construal should be associated with each other.
Stephan, Liberman, and Trope (2009) reported a series of eight studies that demonstrate this association. In particular, whenever participants reflected upon the abstract dispositions, instead of the specific behaviors, of someone else, they communicated more precisely. Furthermore, when the message was going to be read in the remote future or in a remote location, participants also addressed the other person more politely. In addition, when participants were encouraged to generate polite statements, they showed the hallmarks of an abstract construal: they used abstract verbs, for example.
When individuals adopt an abstract construal, they tend to be more hypocritical. That is, they might judge an offence as more acceptable if they, rather than someone else, committed this act. Specifically, if they adopt an abstract construal, the judgments of individuals are derived from their overarching perceptions of themselves as moral and not from the specific details of the context. Furthermore, an abstract construal facilitates flexible thinking, enabling individuals to uncover interpretations that align to this preconception of themselves.
To illustrate, in one study, participants needed to evaluate the morality of an act, such a cheating on an exam. They imagined this act close or distant in time to induce a concrete or abstract construal respectively. In addition, they imagined that either they or someone else undertook this act. In general, participants evaluated this act unfavorably, unless they undertook this act in the future.
Manipulations and measures of distance
Several protocols have been applied to manipulate psychological distance.
To manipulate temporal distance, participants are often asked to imagine an event will unfold either the next day or the next year (e.g., Eyal, Liberman, & Trope, 2008, Studies 2 & 4). Alternatively, when participants reflect upon a previous event, they could be asked to consider this episode from the perspective of themselves now or from the perspective of themselves several years in the future (e.g., Broemer, Grabowski, Gebauer, Ermel, & Diehl, 2008).
In lieu of these manipulations, or after these manipulations, researchers can also measure perceptions of temporal distance. For example, Broemer, Grabowski, Gebauer, Ermel, and Diehl (2008) asked individuals whether some event felt very close, like yesterday or felt very distance, a long time ago, on a 7 point scale.
Similarly, in a study conducted by Carter and Sanna (2008), individuals imagined participating in an interview. Participants were asked to specify a series of indirect or direct strategies they could apply to improve their credibility in this interview. Some participants were told to specify three strategies--a relatively simple task. Other participants were told to specific 12 strategies--a difficult task.
Next, participants were instructed to specify whether the interview felt subjectively near or far in time, on two scales from feels very near to feels very distant and from feels very close to feels very far away (see also Ross & Wilson, 2002; Sanna, Chang, & Carter, 2004).
Individuals instructed to uncover three indirect strategies were more likely to perceive the meeting as far away in time. These individuals can readily undertake this task, and thus assume they could uncover many more of these indirect strategies. Indirect strategies were thus accessible, which coincides with a distant construal.
To manipulate social distance, participants are sometimes asked to imagine events from the perspective of themselves or from the perspective of a friend, colleague, neighbor, or relative (e.g., Eyal, Liberman, & Trope, 2008, Study 3; Broemer, Grabowski, Gebauer, Ermel, & Diehl, 2008).
Events that evoke intense emotions are perceived, in some sense, as close rather than distant (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010). For example, in one study, individuals were asked to describe embarrassing events in their past either with or without emotion. That is, they were told to relive the event, experiencing the emotions again, or to confine their descriptions to objective features. Next, they were asked to specify whether the event felt close or distant in time. Emotional descriptions increased the likelihood these events seemed close in time (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010).
A similar pattern of observations emerges when individuals are asked to describe future possibilities, such as visit a dentist (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010). Furthermore, this pattern persists regardless of whether or not the event is positive or negative in emotion (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010).
Individuals tend to associate close events with intense emotions. Thus, events that evoke emotions are perceived as close in time. If individuals are informed their emotions could be ascribed to some other factor, this effect dissipates (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010).
Interaction between dimensions
In most studies, researchers manipulate one dimension of psychological distance, such as time or location. Kim, Zhang, and Li (2008), however, examined the effects of manipulating two dimensions of psychological distance: time and perspective--that is, self versus other.
In one study, for example, participants evaluated a training program. The description of this online training program varied across participants. Some participants were told the content is excellent but the program is not especially usable--a program that should attract individuals who adopt an abstract construal and focus their attention on the core feature. Other participants were told the contents are ordinary but the program is usable--a program that should attract individuals who adopt a concrete construal and focus their attention on peripheral features.
Perspective, sometimes called social distance, was manipulated: Participants evaluated the extent to which either they or someone else would like the program. In addition, temporal distance was manipulated as well. They were told the program will be available tomorrow or next year.
As predicted, both social distance and temporal distance increased the likelihood that participants would like the program only if the content was excellent. Interestingly, however, if social distance was established, and participants evaluated whether someone else would like the program, temporal distance was virtually irrelevant. Similarly, if temporal distance was established, and participants were informed the product would not be available for a year, social distance was virtually irrelevant as well. A second study replicated this pattern of findings.
According to Kim, Zhang, and Li (2008), after distance is established on one dimension, people are not as sensitive to distance on other dimensions. To illustrate, objects that are remote in time or location are obviously perceived as distant and are not an immediate threat--regardless of whether they are distant on other dimensions as well.
Manipulations and determinants of construal
Why versus how: Effects of behavior and performance
To activate an abstract construal, in some studies, participants are asked to consider why some event transpired. To activate a concrete construal, participants are asked to consider how some event transpired.
For example, in a study conducted by Watkins, Moberly, and Moulds (2008), participants reflected upon a series of written scenarios, such as an argument with a friend or a job interview. After each scenarios, to prime an abstract construal, some participants were asked to reflect upon "why (the scenario) happened, and to analyze the causes, meansing, and implications of this event". To prime a concrete construal, some participants were asked to reflect upon "how (the scenario) happened and to imagine in your mind as vividly as possible a "movie" of how this event unfolded".
As a manipulation check, participants reflected upon strategies to overcome a disagreement with their manager. Judges then rated whether the responses were abstract--that is, indistinct, not specific to one situation, equivocal, unclear, and aggregated--or concrete--that is, distinct, specific to the situation, unequivocal, clear, and singular.
Sometimes, rather than ask participants to consider why or how to undertake some activity once, participants complete this exercise sequentially. For example, if asked why they should exercise, participants might indicate they want to improve their fitness. Then, participants can be asked why they want to improve their fitness. This procedure may continue several times (e.g., Luguri, Napier, & Dovidio, 2012, Study 2).
Why versus how: Neurological underpinnings
Contemplation of how people perform some act elicits different brain regions than does contemplation of why people perform some act (Spunt, Falk, & Lieberman, 2010). Specifically, when individuals reflect on how people undertake some action, premotor and higher-order visual regions are activated, as functional magnetic resonance imaging demonstrates. For example, in one study, participants were asked to specify how people undertake various acts, like brushing their teeth. In this instance, the answer might be "Using a toothbrush". While answering this question, premotor and higher-order visual regions were activated (Spunt, Falk, & Lieberman, 2010)..
The premotor regions underpin the execution of actions, whereas the visual regions underpin the perception of objects that are relevant to the action. Knowledge about how to perform actions, therefore, are embodied in regions that represent the motor and visual areas that correspond to these acts (Spunt, Falk, & Lieberman, 2010).
In contrast, when individuals reflect upon why people undertake actions, the right temporoparietal junction, precuneus, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and posterior superior temporal sulcus are activated. These regions correspond to representing and reasoning about mental states and underpin theory of mind--that is, attempts to understand and accommodate the perspective of other people. Hence, embodied cognition can explain more tangible acts but not more abstract concepts.
Superordinate categories versus subordinate exemplars
In some studies, to evoke an abstract construal, a series of words, such as dog or car, appears on a screen. Participants are instructed to specify a category to which these words belong, such as animal or vehicle (Fujita & Han, 2009; Fujita, Trope, Liberman, & Levin-Sagi, 2006). To evoke a concrete construal, participants are instructed to specify an exemplar of each word, such as poodle or Ford.
This manipulation has shown to evoke the manifestations of abstract and concrete construals. For example, when participants specify the category to which various words belong--putatively eliciting an abstract construal--they resist temptations, striving to pursue broader values instead (Fujita & Han, 2009). This emphasis on broader values is indeed related to an abstract construal (e.g., Liberman, Trope, & Stephan, 2007).
Global or local hearing, touching, tasting and smelling
Forster and Denzler (2012) undertook a series of studies that show that a focus on global patterns or specific details in all the senses can elicit an abstract or concrete construal. To illustrate, in one study, participants were asked to evaluate some cereal. For some of the participants, the cereal was primarily one ingredient, such as corn flakes. Hence, the participants could orient their attention to one specific detail. For other participants, the cereal was an even blend of ingredients, such as corn flakes, raisons, and oats.
Next, participants completed a creative task and an analytic task. The creative task involved specifying a creative title or caption to describe a picture. The analytical task involved the application of rules and logic. The consumption of one ingredient, and hence the focus on details, enhanced performance on the analytical task but impaired performance on the creative task. The consumption of an even blend of ingredients, and hence a focus on a global impression, impaired performance on the analytical task but enhanced performance on the creative task.
As another study showed, when individuals focused on details, they conceptualized categories as quite specific. That is, individuals perceived words like "golf buggy" as atypical of categories like "vehicle". Accordingly, they conceptualized "vehicle" as limited in scope. In contrast, when individuals focused on global impressions, they conceptualized categories as quite broad.
In addition to taste, Forster and Denzler (2012) replicated these results with the other senses as well. To illustrate, some participants were asked to evaluate the smell that emanated from a bowl comprising one ingredient or three ingredients.
These studies verify a model called GLOMO (Forster & Dannenberg, 2010). According to this model, when an orientation towards specific details or global patterns is evoked, participants maintain this orientation, until they recognize this tendency is inappropriate for the task. Thus, if attention is initially directed towards details, participants may not perform as well on a task that demands attention to overall patterns because they do not switch to this other orientation quickly enough.
Sensory versus verbal information
In general, vivid, sensory information tends to prime a concrete construal, whereas verbal, factual information tends to prime an abstract construal. This possibility was illustrated by Amit, Algom, and Trope (2009). In their study, participants needed to arrange various items into clusters. In one condition, the items were merely words that represent various nouns, such as tent. In another condition, the items were pictures of these nouns.
If the items were pictures, participants were more likely to generat narrow categories, comprising fewer items. Presumably, the images include details and, therefore, prime a concrete construal. A concrete construal highlights differences, rather than similarities, between diverse items.
Mood and performance
Studies have also demonstrated that mood affects the construal that individuals adopt. When individuals experience a positive--rather than negative--mood, they prefer references to global traits rather than descriptions of specific behaviors (Isbell, Burns, & Haar, 2005).
Similarly, according to Action Identification Theory, proposed by Vallacher and Wegner (1987), erroneous actions tend to evoke a concrete construal. That is, after errors are committed, individuals tend to orient their attention to details, primarily to ascertain the source of these failures.
Action identification theory specifies the settings in which abstract and concrete construals--referred to as high and low levels--are most applicable (Vallacher, Wegner, & Somoza, 1989; Wegner & Vallacher, 1986). One of the key principles of this theory is the optimality hypothesis. According to this principle, when tasks are difficult, complex, or unfamiliar, lower level action identifications, or a concrete construal, are especially beneficial. When tasks are simple and familiar, higher level action identifications, or an abstract construal, are more beneficial.
To illustrate, when individuals develop a skill, such as golf, they should orient their attention to tangible details on how to perform some act, such as "I will ensure my front arm remains straight". If individuals are experienced, however, they should orient their attention to intangible consequences or motivations, such as "I will outperform my friends".
Vallacher, Wegner, and Somoza (1989) uncovered some findings that are consistent with this proposition. Participants presented a speech. Some of the participants were instructed to focus attention to their voice, representing a low level action identification. Other participants were instructed to speak persuasively, representing a high level action identification. If the audience was conceptualized as difficult to persuade, anxiety dissipated when a low level action identification was adopted. If the audience was conceptualized as easy to persuade, anxiety diminished when a high level action identification was adopted.
Nevertheless, action identification theory assumes that individuals, when stressed, might not always operate at the most suitable level. When they complete an unfamiliar task, they might focus on high level goals, called identity inflation, which compromises performance.
Huntsinger, Clore, and Bar-Anan (2010) offer an alternative explanation to explain this association between mood and construal. In particular, they argue that people, in general, tend to prefer an abstract construal or global perspective (Kimchi, 1992). Furthermore, when individuals experience positive moods, they are more inclined to apply their dominant orientation (cf., Clore & Huntsinger, 2009). Thus, positive moods should, generally, evoke this global perspective.
The implication of this explanation is that positive moods will not always elicit this abstract construal. Specifically, whenever a concrete construal is dominant for some reason, positive moods should not evoke an abstract construal (Huntsinger, Clore, & Bar-Anan, 2010).
To illustrate, in one study, participants undertook a task in which they either needed to orient their attention to specific details or to global patterns. If they undertook a task that directed their attention to specific details, positive moods subsequently enhanced their performance on other tasks that demand this focus on details and compromised performance on other tasks that demand a focus on patterns. If they undertook a task that directed their attention to global patterns, the opposite set of results emerged.
Support from other individuals
Individuals may also be more inclined to adopt an abstract, rather than concrete, construal when they interact with a supportive person or group. In a study conducted by Beukeboom (2009), for example, participants, together with two other individuals, watched a video clip. Next participants were instructed to depict the events of this video clip to the other two individuals--who they did not know were actually confederates. While the participants presented this description, the confederates either smiled and nodded supportively or frowned disapprovingly.
When the confederates acted supportively, the participants alluded to intangible, abstract concepts, using adjectives or describing mental states. In contrast, when the confederates acted disparagingly, the participants alluded to tangible, concrete concepts, referring to observable actions (Beukeboom, 2009).
Presumably, if the audience seems disapproving, individuals feel their message has been rejected or has not been understood. They feel they have not developed a shared understanding or perspective. Accordingly, individuals feel they must refer to specific, tangible details--references that can be understood even without a shared understanding.
Similarly, as Krauss and Fussell (1991; see also Isaacs & Clark, 1987) showed, when individuals feel they share a common perspective with someone else, they seldom refer to specific, tangible details. In a typical study, participants are instructed to describe abstract patterns, composed of shapes and lines. If they felt they had cultivated a common understanding with the person to whom they were interacting, they would often describe this pattern figuratively--with analogies such as "like a spider". If they had felt they had not cultivated this shared understanding, they would refer to the details, including the specific lines or shapes.
Social interactions, in general, can promote an abstract construal. That is, when people engage, or expect to engage, in social interactions, they orient their attention more to the meaning or purpose, instead of the mechanics, of some action (Hart & Burton, 2013).
Several mechanisms could explain this association between social interactions and awareness of the meaning or purpose of actions. First, in social settings, people need to consider how their behavior might be construed by other people. Therefore, they need to be able to imagine their behavior from many perspectives. If they adopt a concrete construal, orienting their attention only to the mechanics of their behavior, they are likely to overlook many of these perspectives (cf., Schlenker, 1980, 2003). Second, when people feel socially isolated, they feel too constrained to consider more inspiring or meaningful possibilities. The prospect of social interactions can temper this concern (Hart & Burton, 2013).
Hart and Burton (2013) conducted a series of three studies that vindicate this association between social interactions and an orientation towards the meaning, rather than mechanics, of actions. In one study, participants received a series of word fragments. Their task was to identify the underlying words. For some participants, many of the answers revolved around social interactions, such as socialize, interact, and mingle. Next, they completed the Behavioral Identification Form, designed to ascertain whether individuals orient towards the meaning and purpose, or mechanics and details, of various activities. Furthermore, while participants completed this task, in the background was a logo that either did, or did not, entail human eyes. Exposure to words that related to social interaction oriented participants to the meaning of activities, but only when the logo did not entail human eyes.
The second study was similar, except participants were informed they will soon either engage in a discussion or write an essay. If participants expected to engage in a discussion, they were more likely to orient their attention to the meaning and purpose of activities. The final study showed that exposure to words that revolve around isolation, such as alone or secluded, oriented attention towards the mechanics or details of actions.
When individuals are exposed to money, or symbols that remind people of money, they are more likely to adopt an abstract construal. That is, they direct their attention to broad or intangible concepts and patterns rather than specific, concrete features and details.
For example, in one study, participants completed the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearrange sets of five words to construct sentences that comprise four words. Embedded within these sentences were words that were related to money, such as wealth and rich, or words unrelated to money. If participants had been exposed to words related to money, they tended to describe actions with reference to broad concepts instead of specific details, as gauged by the behavioral identification form. To illustrate, they described reading a book as gaining knowledge rather than following lines of print. Subsequent studies showed that primes related to money oriented attention to overall patterns instead of specific details or to broad concepts instead of narrow concepts.
These effects were observed only with reference to considerable, rather than modest, levels of money, wealth, or resources. Consequently, this pattern of observations can be ascribed to the theory that exposure to plentiful resources instills a sense of security. Individuals, therefore, do not need to orient their attention to subtle problems but can shift their focus to broad, inspiring possibilities in the future.
Love versus sex
According to Forster, Epstude, and Ozelsel (2009), when love is salient, individuals are more likely to demonstrate an abstract construal, orienting their attention to intangible concepts. When sex is salient, individuals are more inclined to demonstrate a concrete construal, orienting their attention to tangible details.
Specifically, romantic love highlights an enduring desire or commitment. Individuals, thus, become more inclined to contemplate the future. Any focus on the remote future tends to elicit an abstract construal. In contrast, sexual desire highlights more immediate objectives and tangible acts. This focus on immediate needs tends to evoke a concrete construal.
Forster, Epstude, and Ozelsel (2009) conducted two studies to assess these premises. To orient their attention to love, some participants imagined a long walk with a beloved partner. To orient their attention to sex, other participants imagined casual sex with someone with whom they were not in love. Next, they completed a series of tasks that demand creative insight to solve, such as how a person realized an ancient coin, stamped 544 BC on one side, was a fake. Furthermore, they completed a series of tasks that demand the application of logical rules.
When participants oriented their attention towards love, they performed well on the task that demands creative insight--a task that usually benefits from an abstract construal (Friedman & Forster, 2008). When participants oriented their attention towards sex, they performed well on the task that demands analytical thinking--a task that usually benefits from a concrete construal.
The second study was similar, except participants also completed a task to determine whether they applied an abstract or concrete construal. Specifically, they completed a task adapted from Gasper (2004; Gasper & Clore, 2002) to assess whether individuals focus on the overall pattern or specific details. love, in contrast to sex, did evoke an orientation towards the global pattern of stimuli.
Provided that individuals tend to be quite persistent, obstacles or impediments tend to foster an abstract construal (Marguc, Forster, & Van Kleef, 2011). That is, while completing an important task, if individuals feel they are obstructed, they need to uncover other means to fulfill their goal. An abstract construal may facilitate these attempts. Specifically, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, they become aware of a broader range of avenues and possibilities. Their attention is directed to a larger array of stimuli. They can also update the sequence of actions they had planned to circumvent or even exploit obstacles.
Therefore, over time, individuals associate an abstract construal with the capacity to overcome obstacles. Obstacles, thus, will evoke an abstract construal. Indeed, an obstacle on one task may increase the likelihood that individuals apply an abstract construal to a subsequent task as well. One of the practical implications is that obstacles and impediments, even if contrived by managers, could foster an abstract construal and promote more flexible thinking.
Marguc, Forster, and Van Kleef (2011) conducted a series of studies that were intended to substantiate these arguments. In one study, participants attempted to solve a series of anagrams. Some of the participants wore headphones. These individuals could hear distracting words, representing an obstacle. Other participants did not wear headphones. Next, all participants completed a task in which large letters composed of small letters were presented. For example, an L composed of small Ts appeared on the computer monitor. On each trial, the task of participants was to identify whether or not the figure included a target letter, such as a T or F.
Some participants perform this task more effectively on trials in which the target letter is the overall pattern, representing an abstract construal. Other participants perform this task more effectively on trials in which the target is one of the smaller letters, representing a concrete construal. In general, the distracting words, and hence the obstacles, evoked an abstract construal.
The second study was similar apart from two amendments. First, in this study, all participants heard distracting numbers. However, only some of the participants were told these numbers may be distracting and thus need to be ignored. That is, only these participants were prompted to conceptualize these numbers as an obstacle. Second, rather than complete the tasks with the large and small letters, participants received a pair of words, such as telephone and furniture. Their task was to indicate, on a scale from 1 to 9, the extent to which they feel the first word is a typical exemplar of the second word. High values reveal a tendency to perceive the second word as a broad category, representing an abstract construal. Again, an awareness of obstacles elicited an abstract construal.
In the third study, participants completed a maze, presented on a monitor. Before they reached an obstacle, participants tended to scan only the area around their location. After they reached an obstacle, they were more likely to scan a broader area of the monitor. This breadth of perception tends to coincide with an abstract construal.
The final set of studies showed that obstacles do not foster an abstract construal in all participants. Specifically, some individuals tend to shift their attention regularly from one task to another task, called volatility. In contrast, other individuals, once engrossed in a task, will persist with this activity for hours. Interestingly, if participants were not volatile, but instead could sustain their attention on one task for hours, obstacles were more likely to elicit an abstract construal. Presumably, if participants are volatile, they often relinquish obstructed goals rather than strive to uncover opportunities to circumvent these obstacles. Consequently, they are not as likely to invoke an abstract construal to override impediments.
According to Mehta, Zhu, and Cheema (2012), relative to low or high levels of ambient noise, moderate levels of ambient noise seem to improve the performance of individuals on creative tasks and increases the likelihood they will purchase innovative products. In particular, sufficient noise is needed to impede cognition enough to provoke a sense of distance and to foster an abstract construal, enhancing creativity. Excessive noise, however, impedes the degree to which individuals process information and, therefore, disrupts creativity.
For example, in one study, participants listened to city noises over headphones, such as roadside traffic and the distant sounds of construction. The levels of noise were 50, 70, or 85 decibels. Next, they needed to identify a variety of creative changes to mattresses. Then, to gauge construal level, they completed the behavioral identification form, in which they needed to decide whether various acts, such as writing a list, reflect abstract concepts or concrete actions, such as organizing themselves or transcribing items. Finally, participants indicated the degree to which they were motivated to complete the study.
Relative to participants who listened to low levels of noise at 50 decibels, participants who listened to moderate levels of noise at 70 decibels generated more creative solutions, and this association was mediated by an abstract construal. In addition, compared to participants who listened to high levels of noise at 85 decibels, participants who listened to moderate levels of noise at 70 decibels also generated more creative solutions, and this association was mediated by motivation.
A subsequent study indicated that feelings of distraction rather than arousal underpinned the benefits of moderate levels of noise compared to low levels of noise. Furthermore, one study showed that moderate levels of noise enhance both the degree to which the solutions are both creative and original. Finally, one study showed that moderate levels of noise increase the likelihood that people value innovation as well; that is, in a natural environment, when levels of noise were moderate, people were more likely to purchase goods they perceived as innovative.
In short, these studies indicate that moderate levels of noise can promote moments of distraction. This distraction may divert the attention of people from their immediate task and, therefore, evoke a sense of distance from this activity. This sense of distance could foster an abstract construal.
Novel events have also been shown to foster an abstract construal (Forster, 2009). That is, according to Forster, when individuals are exposed to a novel event--activities or objects that seem unfamiliar--they need to categorize this information. That is, they must categorize these events, primarily to integrate this information into existing knowledge structures. They might, for example, need to decide whether an event is a social interaction or a threat. To fulfill this goal, individuals need to uncover the essence of these events, which corresponds to an abstract rather than concrete construal.
Consistent with this proposition, Forster (2009) showed that novel events promoted abstract thinking. A unknown character was presented subliminally 0, 5, 15, or 40 times. Then, this character was presented again. If the character had not been presented earlier, and thus was novel, individuals could subsequently identify patterns more effectively than details, as gauged by a local-global task. Similarly, when asked to specify the meaning of an unfamiliar symbol, their answers were more abstract and intangible rather than concrete and specific.
Liu (2008), however, uncovered some findings that challenge these arguments. In her study, participants had to decide between two alternatives--such as two destinations on a hiking trip, two printers, two sets of bed linen, or two rental cars. One of the alternatives was very desirable but not feasible. These alternatives were more rewarding or versatile but also risky or expensive. The other alternative was very feasible but not especially desirable.
The findings were very informative. If individuals were interrupted while choosing between these options, they were especially likely to prefer the desirable alternative to the feasible alternative. In contrast, if individuals were not interrupted during this decision, they were more likely to prefer the feasible alternative (Liu, 2008).
At first glance, these findings contradict construal level theory. That is, as Liu (2008) maintains, when individuals return to an initial decision after an interruption, the information no longer seems novel. When novelty diminishes, a concrete construal should prevail, as Forster (2009) showed. A concrete construal coincides with an emphasis on feasibility and logistics rather than desirability or value (see Bagazzo & Dholakia, 1999). Hence, contrary to the observations reported by Liu (2008), when individuals are interrupted, the diminution of novelty should evoke a concrete construal and thus a preference towards the feasible alternative.
Indeed, Liu (2008) argues that novelty should evoke a concrete, not an abstract, construal--contrary to the observations reported by Forster (2009). Specifically, novel stimuli should attract attention automatically (see Kahneman, 1973; Payne & Bettman, 2004). Hence, the direction of attention should be guided by data in the environment rather than preconceptions, theories, and goals--sometimes called data driven or bottom-up processing (e.g., Hauser, 1986; Johnson, 1984; Park & Smith, 1989). Familiar stimuli do not attract automatically. Thus, the direction of attention is not guided by data in the environment, but governed by preconceptions, theories, and goals, called goal-directed or top-down processing.
According to Liu (2008), bottom-up processes focus on specific features in the environment rather than abstract concepts and goals. Top-down processes focus on abstract concepts and goals. Taken together, these arguments, as proposed by Liu (2008), imply that novelty should evoke bottom-up processes and thus a concrete construal.
Conceivably, the study conducted by Forster (2009) can be ascribed to an alternative explanation. Items, if exposed several times before, are not only less novel but might be processed more fluently. This fluency could augment the perceived importance of these items. Thus, items, if exposed several times before, might be regarded as more important and thus more worthy of attention. Attention might be automatically attracted to this items, which provokes bottom-up processes and a concrete construal.
In other words, familiarity might correspond to perceived utility. The utility, not the familiarity, of the items might provoke a concrete construal.
Alternative, implicit manipulations of construal level have been applied. For example, in the third study conducted by Watkins, Moberly, and Moulds (2008), participants were instructed to complete word stems, embedded within various paragraphs. For example, to prime an abstract construal, participants read an extract about a romantic interlude and completed the sentence "Getting into the warm bath, you feel very re_axed". The answer, "relaxed", is an abstract, unobservable quality. In contrast, to prime a concrete construal, participants read an extract about a bath flood and completed the sentence "You feel irritated because you are so w_t". The answer "wet" is a concrete, observable quality.
Measures of construal
The behavior identification form, developed by Vallacher and Wegner (1989), was intended to ascertain whether individuals tend to allude to tangible activities rather than to abstract conceptualizations when they describe courses of action. A specific action is presented, such as "ringing a doorbell". Participants then indicate which of two alternatives represent an equivalent description of this action. One of the alternatives represents a concrete variant, sometimes called low-level, such as "moving your finger". The other alternative represents an abstract variant, sometimes called high-level, such as "seeing if someone is home". The measure comprises 25 items. Internal consistency tends to approximate .85 (e.g., Freitas, Clark, Kim, & Levy, 2009).
A variety of other procedures have been also applied to assess whether individuals adopt an abstract or concrete construal. One test, adapted from Gasper (2004; Gasper & Clore, 2002), is used to ascertain whether individuals focus on visual patterns or details (e.g., Forster, Epstude, & Ozelsel, 2009). In particular, a geometrical pattern is presented, such as four small squares, which are arranged to form the corners of a larger square. Next, two more patterns appear below. One pattern forms the same overall shape, in this instance a square, but comprises different elements, perhaps triangles. Another pattern forms a different overall shape, such as a triangle, but comprises the same elements.
Participants must decide which of the two patterns below is most similar to the pattern above. If they select the pattern that is similar in overall shape, they are presumably adopting an abstract construal. If they select the other pattern, participants are presumably adopting a concrete construal. Consistent with this assumption, memories of love rather than sex, which should activate a focus on the future and thus an abstract construal, do increase the likelihood that individuals choose the alternative that is similar in overall design (Forster, Epstude, & Ozelsel, 2009).
The credit card premium
In general, people are more likely to spend money if they pay with credit cards than if they pay with cash (Soman, 2001), called the credit card premium. Chatterjee and Rose (2012) proposed, and then validated, a possible mechanism that underpins this effect of credit cards, and this explanation is consistent with construal level theory.
Specifically, when individuals pay with credit cards, they do not need to reimburse this account until later. The costs of this purchase, therefore, are delayed and distant in time. In contrast, the benefits of this purchase are often immediate and close in time. These benefits, therefore, are perceived as more concrete, tangible, and accessible than are the costs. Because the benefits are more salient and accessible, people will tend to purchase the products they contemplate.
Chatterjee and Rose (2012) conducted a series of four studies. In each study, participants first completed the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearrange words to form sentences. To prime credit cards, for some participants, words that are synonymous with credit cards were embedded within these sentences, such as Visa. In the control conditions, words that are synonymous with cash were embedded within these sentences, such as ATM.
Next, participants completed a task that determines whether benefits or costs are more accessible. In Study 1, for example, participants received information about a camera. Next, to assess their memory of these features, they needed to decide whether various statements about this camera were accurate. If credit cards were primed, participants tended to remember the benefits of this camera. If cash was primed, participants were more likely to remember the cost of this camera. Similarly, in Studies 2 and 3, if credit cards were primed, participants could more rapidly recognize words that relate to benefits instead of costs.
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Created by Dr Simon Moss on 18/10/2008
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