Psychological Distance & Construal Level Theory

We can mentally represent the same situation more concretely or more abstractly. Level of abstraction, called construal level, has diverse effects on our thinking, including creativity, problem solving, risk taking, analytic evaluations, forecasting of other people’s actions, self-control, decision-making, and other elements of creative and adaptive thinking. Higher level construals allow for more abstract reasoning and easier extraction of high-level information; accordingly, higher level construals, for example, can help with creativity but hurt with predictions.

One of the easiest ways to influence construal level is by manipulating psychological distance. This post explains what construal level is and what influences psychological distance; future posts will explore how psychological distance affects specific aspects of thinking and problem solving, such as creativity, decision making, and others.

What is Construal Level?

Anything that is not part of our direct experience involves a mental representation, i.e. construal. So anything that we do not experience here, now, and ourselves, involves construal. However, not all mental representations are created equal: we can represent the same event more or less abstractly, with abstract representations being more simple and schematic, containing only general information and essential features.

For instance, if you think about writing an email to your old colleague, you can use concrete representation of this activity—typing words on a keyboard and pressing the Send button; however, if you use abstract representation, you might think of the same activity as something you do to maintain your professional network. Similarly, eating a banana can be represented more concretely—as undressing the fruit and taking a bite—or more abstractly, as keeping your body well nourished.

Construal Level Theory and Psychological Distance

Construal level theory, formulated by Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope, explains that levels of construal vary with psychological distance, with greater distance leading to higher-levels of construal.[1] For instance, if you’re thinking about an event which will come to pass in 7 months, you will feel greater psychological distance than if the same event took place today or tomorrow; accordingly, because of the increased distance, you will use more abstract representations.

Why psychological distance increases abstractness of representation? Generally, we have less information about distant events, so we can construct only simple, schematic representations of them. Yet, as Liberman and Trope argue, an association may be learned between psychological distance and construal level, and we may use abstract representation for distant events even when complete information is as easily available for distant events as it is for proximal events.[2]

4 Dimensions of Psychological Distance

Psychological distance has four dimensions, so you can manipulate one or a few of these four dimensions when you need to either increase or reduce psychological distance:

  1. Time. Time increases psychological distance, so for example, an event that takes place 11 months from now creates greater distance than the same event that takes place 11 days from now (or that happened 11 days ago). Thus, when you need to increase distance, imagine that your problem, action, activity, and so on, is taking place in the distant future. Conversely, to reduce distance, think of an event or decision as happening now or tomorrow.
  1. Space. Physical distance creates psychological distance: objects, people, problems, etc, located in a far away land will create greater psychological distance. Therefore, to increase distance, imagine an event is happening far away from you; conversely, to reduce distance, imagine it happening physically close to you.
  1. Social Distance. Social distance increases psychological distance, so you can increase distance by imagining, for example, that you’re solving a problem on behalf of someone else, especially someone with whom you are unfamiliar or who is dissimilar to you. Feelings of power also increase psychological distance as powerful people consider themselves less similar to others, so anything that makes you feel powerful will also lead to more abstract thinking. Conversely, you will reduce distance by imagining that you yourself are affected by a problem, or at least it affects someone who is close to you, with whom you are familiar, or who is similar to you.
  1. Hypotheticality. Psychological distance increases when an event seems hypothetical or less likely to happen. So you can increase psychological distance by imagining that something is unlikely to happen. Conversely, you will reduce psychological distance by imagining that an event has already happened or is very likely to happen.

Notes

[1] Liberman, N., & Trope, Y. (1998). The role of feasibility and desirability considerations in near and distant future decisions: A test of temporal construal theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 5–18.

[2] Nira Liberman, Yaacov Trope, and Elena Stephan, Psychological Distance, in Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles (Arie W. Kruglanski and E. Tori Higgins (eds.); NY: Guilford Press, 2007) p. 354.