Effects of Thinking Abstractly or Concretely on Self-control

Social Psychology

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Overview

Source: Diego Reinero & Jay Van Bavel—New York University

Whether it's refraining from having a second serving of ice cream, studying instead of attending a fun party, or deciding to put money away in a savings account, sacrificing short-term outcomes in favor of long-term outcomes (i.e., delaying gratification) is a central tenant of self-control. When people apply self control, they engage numerous psychological processes to help them achieve their goal. These self-regulatory processes have been studied by psychologists for decades.

A decision to resist tempting short-term rewards can depend on an individual's mindset and focus. Psychologists have found evidence that how someone construes an event can influence how they make judgments and decisions, a theory called Construal Level Theory (CLT). In particular, CLT asserts that the same object or event can be represented at multiple levels of abstractness or psychological distance, most commonly either a high-(abstract/distant) or low-(concrete/near) level of construal.1 Thinking about a situation with high-level construal entails emphasizing the global, superordinate, central features of an object or event (i.e,, zooming out and looking at the big picture), whereas thinking about a situation with low-level construal entails focusing on its unique and specific features. For example, thinking about children playing catch with high-level construal, one might describe this activity as "children having fun", whereas with a low-level construal, one might focus instead on specific features such as the color of the ball or age of the children.

The following experiment tests whether approaching a decision or situation with high-level construal will lead to greater self-control than low-level construal. This experiment utilizes a common method of priming a participant's level of construal through asking a series of "why" (high-level manipulation) or "how" (low-level manipulation) questions.2

Cite this Video

JoVE Science Education Database. Social Psychology. Effects of Thinking Abstractly or Concretely on Self-control. JoVE, Cambridge, MA, (2017).

Procedure

1. Data Collection

  1. Conduct a power analysis and recruit a sufficient number of participants and obtain informed consent from the participants.
  2. Randomly assign half of the participants to the high-level condition and the other half to the low-level condition.
  3. As a cover story, tell the participants that they will be completing materials for two independent studies during the 30-min session.
  4. Have participants first complete a survey, ostensibly described as a survey of their opinions and activities.
  5. Present participants with one of two questions, depending on their condition.
    1. For condition 1, high-level prime, ask "Why do I maintain good physical health?"
      1. Provide participants with a diagram of vertically aligned boxes that begin at the bottom of the page and are connected by upward arrows labeled Why?2 The box at the very bottom of the diagram should be filled in with the statement "Maintain good physical health."
      2. Instruct participants to insert a response in the box immediately above the bottom box, answering the question of why they would maintain good physical health.
      3. After inserting their first answer, they should insert a second answer in the box immediately above the box they had just completed, answering the question why they would engage in their initial response. For example, a participant might have answered the question, "Why do I maintain good physical health?" by writing, "To do well in school"
      4. The diagram would then prompt them to ask themselves, "Why do I want to do well in school?", to which they would provide a response in the box immediately above the one they had just filled in.
      5. Participants should provide four responses in this manner.
    2. For condition 2, low-level prime, ask "How do I maintain good physical health?"
      1. Provide participants with a diagram of vertically aligned boxes that begin at the top of the page and are connected by downward arrows labeled How?2 The box at the very top of the diagram should be filled in with the statement "Maintain good physical health."
      2. Instruct participants to insert a response in the box immediately below the top box, answering the question of how they would maintain good physical health.
      3. After inserting their first answer, they should insert a second answer in the box immediately below the box they had just completed, answering the question how they would engage in their initial response. For example, a participant might have answered the question, "How do I maintain good physical health?" by writing, "Go exercise."
      4. The diagram would then prompt them to ask themselves, "How does one go exercise?", to which they would provide a response in the box immediately below the one they had just filled in.
      5. Participants should provide four responses in this manner.
  6. After participants complete the construal level manipulation, present them with what is ostensibly the second of two independent studies (but in reality is the dependent measure of self-control).
    1. Have participants read four scenarios that describe an item that they might buy:
      A discount gift certificate to a restaurant
      A DVD player (or Blue-Ray)
      A set of four movie passes
      A discount coupon to the university bookstore
    2. Ask participants to indicate the dollar amount that they would pay to receive the item immediately and delayed in time.
      1. Half of the scenarios (DVD and movies passes) require participants first to indicate a monetary value for receiving the item immediately and then delayed in time, whereas the other half (restaurant and bookstore) require them first to write down the dollar amount for receiving the item delayed in time and then immediately.
      2. The time delay for each of the scenarios will vary (favorite restaurant, 6 months; DVD player, 1 year; movie passes, 1 month; bookstore coupon, 1 year).
    3. Counterbalance the presentation order of the scenarios.
  7. Afterwards, have participants complete a funneled debriefing form to probe for suspicion regarding the experimental manipulations.3
  8. Once all participants have completed the follow-up questionnaires, carefully debrief them and dismiss them.

2. Data Analysis

  1. Conduct a manipulation check. Have two judges, unaware of condition, measure each participant's level of construal based on the abstractness of their responses to the why versus how manipulation.
    1. If a response fits the criterion Y by X, where X was the participant's response to prompt Y (i.e., participants' responses were a subordinate means to the original statement "Maintain good physical health."), have the judges code the response with a score of -1.
    2. If a response fit the criterion X by Y (i.e., participants' responses were a superordinate end served by maintaining good physical health), have the judges code the response with a score of +1.
    3. If a participant's response fit neither criterion, code the response as 0.
  2. Sum the ratings of each participant's four responses to create an index of level of construal with a potential range of -4 to +4; higher scores indicate higher levels of construal.
  3. Assuming a high correlation between the two judges' ratings (e.g., r = 0.91), average the ratings together.
  4. Perform a two-sample t-test to ascertain if participants exposed to why (high-level) questions demonstrated a significantly higher mean than participants exposed to how (low-level) questions.
  5. In addition, to examine the dependent measure of self-control, compute difference scores by subtracting the dollar value that participants were willing to pay for the distant-future versions of each of the four scenarios from the amount they were willing to pay for the immediate versions.
    1. Larger differences scores indicate stronger preferences for immediate over delayed rewards and hence a lack of self-control.
  6. Difference scores can be analyzed with a 2 (construal level: high vs. low) x 4 (scenario: restaurant, DVD player, movie, bookstore) MANOVA, if assumptions of this statistical test are met (e.g., normality, absence of multivariate outliers, linearity, absence of multicollinearity, and equality of covariance matrices).

Objects and events can be mentally represented at multiple levels of abstractness and distance in what are known as construal levels.

For instance, consider children playing catch in a park. Those who observe the kids from afar and see the big picture of them having fun, display an abstract level of interpretation—high construal.

Such emphasis on the global picture contrasts with others who think about specific and narrow features, such as the stain on the white shirt. This is an example of having a low, concrete level of construal

Moreover, how someone interprets the event can even influence how they make decisions. For example, a mother viewing the kids with high construal might show self-control and delay calling them in for dinner. On the other hand, the father—with low construal—may show less self-control and call them in because of how dirty they are getting.

This video demonstrates how to investigate the relationship between manipulating construal level and approaching decisions and self-control in a laboratory setting.

In this experiment, participants’ construal levels are first manipulated through priming and then they are asked to make decisions across a number of scenarios in two seemingly separate studies.

Participants are first randomly assigned to either a high- or low-level condition. In the former group, they answer a sequence of "why" questions, which represents a more abstract level of thinking. Whereas the latter participants are asked to reply to a series of "how" questions, which signify a more concrete level of construal.

For the second study, participants are instructed to read four scenarios that describe an item that they might buy. They are asked to indicate the dollar amount that they would pay to receive the item immediately and at a later date. The dollar amounts constitute the dependent measure of self-control.

According to the Construal Level Theory, which theorizes that how someone construes an event can influence their decisions, participants who underwent the high-level manipulation are expected to show greater self-control—a reduced preference for the immediate reward. The opposite is expected with those in the low-level condition who are likely to value immediate over delayed rewards.

Prior to running the experiment, determine the number of participants needed by performing a power analysis. To begin, greet each one in the lab and obtain consent to take part in the study.

Explain to the participant that they will be doing two studies and that in the first one, they will be completing a survey about opinions and activities.

For those in the high-level condition, tell them that the question to consider is: "Why do I maintain good physical health?". Explain that they should fill in the four responses on the sheet by answering why they would engage in their previous answer. Give sufficient time for the participant to fill in the form.

For those in the low-level group, have them consider: "How do I maintain good physical health?". Note that the only difference here is answering how.

Following the manipulation phase, have everyone read four scenarios that describe an item they might buy. Ask them to indicate the dollar amount they would pay to receive the item immediately or delayed in time, ranging from one month to a year.

Finally, use funneled debriefing and ask a series of increasingly probing questions to assess whether participants had any suspicion or awareness regarding the experimental manipulations. Afterwards, thank them for taking part in the study.

To analyze the data, have two judges who are unaware of the experimental conditions, independently assess each participant’s level of construal based on the abstractness of their responses to the why versus how manipulation.

If a response was a low-level answer—referred to as subordinate means—code it as a negative one. If the reply to the same statement was high-level—known as a superordinate end—code it as a positive one. Otherwise, record the response as a 0.

Sum the ratings of each participant’s four responses to create an index ranging from -4 to +4, with positive scores indicating higher levels of construal. Graph the averages and use a two-sample t-test to confirm that the high-level condition resulted in a significantly higher mean than the low-level group.

To examine self-control, compute the difference scores by subtracting the dollar value participants were willing to pay for the delayed outcome from the amount they were willing to pay for an immediate result. Large difference scores indicate stronger preferences for the immediate, and hence, a lack of self-control.

Graph the average difference scores and use multivariate analysis of variance with the two levels of construal and four scenarios as factors to assess significance.

Results showed that those primed in the high-level manipulation preferred immediate over delayed outcomes less than those primed in the low-level condition, suggesting that construal level affects self-control.

Now that you are familiar with how thinking abstractly versus concretely can impact self-control, let’s look at other real-life situations where the theory can be applied, such as in diplomacy and advertising.

In international diplomacy, the construal level of those involved can be the difference between war and peace. If a situation is approached with a broad and global perspective, enhancing the perceived psychological distance and thus eliciting greater self-control, there is a greater likelihood of peace.

In contrast, approaching a situation with a narrow and specific perspective—shrinking the perceived psychological distance and reducing self-control—enhances the likelihood of escalation. Without a doubt, it is often better when cooler heads prevail.

Researchers have shown that Construal Level Theory can be used to influence consumers’ decisions. For example, when a buyer’s mindset is at a psychological distance from making a purchase, advertisements also viewed from afar—such as billboards—should accentuate higher-level attributes, like the desirability of a product.

Conversely, ads viewed at the time of purchase, like in-store fliers, should emphasize low-level attributes, such as feasibility and price, to match the mindset shift to one that is more detail-oriented. Thus, tailoring marketing campaigns to match a shopper’s level of construal can lead to increased sales.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s video on the effects of thinking abstractly or concretely on self-control. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design and execute an experiment with manipulations of construal levels, how to analyze and assess the results, as well as how to apply the principles to a number of real-world situations.

Thanks for watching!

Results

Analyzing the manipulation check revealed that participants exposed to why questions generated responses that reflected higher levels of construal compared with those exposed to how questions. The data (Figure 1) typically indicate that those primed in high-level construal, prefer immediate over delayed outcomes less than those primed in low-level construal. This suggests that high-level construal leads to greater self-control than low-level construal.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Preference for immediate over delayed outcomes. The difference scores in dollar amounts were plotted by level of construal.

Applications and Summary

How people construe a situation can shape their overall mindset and focus, influencing consequent judgments and decisions. Participants who answered questions of why they engaged in actions displayed a reduced tendency to prefer immediate over delayed outcomes compared with those who responded to questions of how they engaged in actions. That is, time delay had less of an impact on those individuals primed to a high-level versus a low-level construal. This reflects that those who construed the situation in a high-level construal showed a greater tendency to make decisions that reflected self-control, than did those in a low-level construal.

Our lives are full of situations where we seek to utilize self-control. Dieters resist enticing sweets, smokers push back against addictive cravings, we all try to focus on work despite the allure of procrastination, and we all know the importance of saving money for our future. Our health and financial well-being depend on a certain degree of self-control.

One dominant approach to understanding decision making is a dual-system model: The "hot system", composed of affective mental representations, which, when activated, leads to appetitive, impulsive responses, and the "cool system", composed of emotionally neutral cognitions that guide behavior in a contemplative, reflective manner.4,5 This dual-process approach was embraced in nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman's bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, wherein he describes System 1 as the quick, intuitive, emotional system, and System 2 as the slow, deliberative, rational system.6

Although there is an inevitable interplay between these mental processes and self-control, these findings suggest that a crucial aspect of self-control is how we construe a decision or situation. Do we approach situations with a broad and global perspective, enhancing the perceived psychological distance and thus eliciting greater self-control, or do we approach it with a narrow and specific perspective, shrinking the perceived psychological distance and reducing self-control? This work may be informative to individuals as well as organizations who wish to promote long-term rewards.

References

  1. Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal construal. Psychological Review, 110, 403-421.
  2. Freitas, A. L., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Trope, Y. (2004). The influence of abstract and concrete mindsets on anticipating and guiding others' self-regulatory efforts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 739-752.
  3. Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. (2000). The mind in the middle: A practical guide to priming and automaticity research. In H. T. Reis & C. M. Judd (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology (pp. 253-285). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.
  5. Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.
  6. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

1. Data Collection

  1. Conduct a power analysis and recruit a sufficient number of participants and obtain informed consent from the participants.
  2. Randomly assign half of the participants to the high-level condition and the other half to the low-level condition.
  3. As a cover story, tell the participants that they will be completing materials for two independent studies during the 30-min session.
  4. Have participants first complete a survey, ostensibly described as a survey of their opinions and activities.
  5. Present participants with one of two questions, depending on their condition.
    1. For condition 1, high-level prime, ask "Why do I maintain good physical health?"
      1. Provide participants with a diagram of vertically aligned boxes that begin at the bottom of the page and are connected by upward arrows labeled Why?2 The box at the very bottom of the diagram should be filled in with the statement "Maintain good physical health."
      2. Instruct participants to insert a response in the box immediately above the bottom box, answering the question of why they would maintain good physical health.
      3. After inserting their first answer, they should insert a second answer in the box immediately above the box they had just completed, answering the question why they would engage in their initial response. For example, a participant might have answered the question, "Why do I maintain good physical health?" by writing, "To do well in school"
      4. The diagram would then prompt them to ask themselves, "Why do I want to do well in school?", to which they would provide a response in the box immediately above the one they had just filled in.
      5. Participants should provide four responses in this manner.
    2. For condition 2, low-level prime, ask "How do I maintain good physical health?"
      1. Provide participants with a diagram of vertically aligned boxes that begin at the top of the page and are connected by downward arrows labeled How?2 The box at the very top of the diagram should be filled in with the statement "Maintain good physical health."
      2. Instruct participants to insert a response in the box immediately below the top box, answering the question of how they would maintain good physical health.
      3. After inserting their first answer, they should insert a second answer in the box immediately below the box they had just completed, answering the question how they would engage in their initial response. For example, a participant might have answered the question, "How do I maintain good physical health?" by writing, "Go exercise."
      4. The diagram would then prompt them to ask themselves, "How does one go exercise?", to which they would provide a response in the box immediately below the one they had just filled in.
      5. Participants should provide four responses in this manner.
  6. After participants complete the construal level manipulation, present them with what is ostensibly the second of two independent studies (but in reality is the dependent measure of self-control).
    1. Have participants read four scenarios that describe an item that they might buy:
      A discount gift certificate to a restaurant
      A DVD player (or Blue-Ray)
      A set of four movie passes
      A discount coupon to the university bookstore
    2. Ask participants to indicate the dollar amount that they would pay to receive the item immediately and delayed in time.
      1. Half of the scenarios (DVD and movies passes) require participants first to indicate a monetary value for receiving the item immediately and then delayed in time, whereas the other half (restaurant and bookstore) require them first to write down the dollar amount for receiving the item delayed in time and then immediately.
      2. The time delay for each of the scenarios will vary (favorite restaurant, 6 months; DVD player, 1 year; movie passes, 1 month; bookstore coupon, 1 year).
    3. Counterbalance the presentation order of the scenarios.
  7. Afterwards, have participants complete a funneled debriefing form to probe for suspicion regarding the experimental manipulations.3
  8. Once all participants have completed the follow-up questionnaires, carefully debrief them and dismiss them.

2. Data Analysis

  1. Conduct a manipulation check. Have two judges, unaware of condition, measure each participant's level of construal based on the abstractness of their responses to the why versus how manipulation.
    1. If a response fits the criterion Y by X, where X was the participant's response to prompt Y (i.e., participants' responses were a subordinate means to the original statement "Maintain good physical health."), have the judges code the response with a score of -1.
    2. If a response fit the criterion X by Y (i.e., participants' responses were a superordinate end served by maintaining good physical health), have the judges code the response with a score of +1.
    3. If a participant's response fit neither criterion, code the response as 0.
  2. Sum the ratings of each participant's four responses to create an index of level of construal with a potential range of -4 to +4; higher scores indicate higher levels of construal.
  3. Assuming a high correlation between the two judges' ratings (e.g., r = 0.91), average the ratings together.
  4. Perform a two-sample t-test to ascertain if participants exposed to why (high-level) questions demonstrated a significantly higher mean than participants exposed to how (low-level) questions.
  5. In addition, to examine the dependent measure of self-control, compute difference scores by subtracting the dollar value that participants were willing to pay for the distant-future versions of each of the four scenarios from the amount they were willing to pay for the immediate versions.
    1. Larger differences scores indicate stronger preferences for immediate over delayed rewards and hence a lack of self-control.
  6. Difference scores can be analyzed with a 2 (construal level: high vs. low) x 4 (scenario: restaurant, DVD player, movie, bookstore) MANOVA, if assumptions of this statistical test are met (e.g., normality, absence of multivariate outliers, linearity, absence of multicollinearity, and equality of covariance matrices).

Objects and events can be mentally represented at multiple levels of abstractness and distance in what are known as construal levels.

For instance, consider children playing catch in a park. Those who observe the kids from afar and see the big picture of them having fun, display an abstract level of interpretation—high construal.

Such emphasis on the global picture contrasts with others who think about specific and narrow features, such as the stain on the white shirt. This is an example of having a low, concrete level of construal

Moreover, how someone interprets the event can even influence how they make decisions. For example, a mother viewing the kids with high construal might show self-control and delay calling them in for dinner. On the other hand, the father—with low construal—may show less self-control and call them in because of how dirty they are getting.

This video demonstrates how to investigate the relationship between manipulating construal level and approaching decisions and self-control in a laboratory setting.

In this experiment, participants’ construal levels are first manipulated through priming and then they are asked to make decisions across a number of scenarios in two seemingly separate studies.

Participants are first randomly assigned to either a high- or low-level condition. In the former group, they answer a sequence of "why" questions, which represents a more abstract level of thinking. Whereas the latter participants are asked to reply to a series of "how" questions, which signify a more concrete level of construal.

For the second study, participants are instructed to read four scenarios that describe an item that they might buy. They are asked to indicate the dollar amount that they would pay to receive the item immediately and at a later date. The dollar amounts constitute the dependent measure of self-control.

According to the Construal Level Theory, which theorizes that how someone construes an event can influence their decisions, participants who underwent the high-level manipulation are expected to show greater self-control—a reduced preference for the immediate reward. The opposite is expected with those in the low-level condition who are likely to value immediate over delayed rewards.

Prior to running the experiment, determine the number of participants needed by performing a power analysis. To begin, greet each one in the lab and obtain consent to take part in the study.

Explain to the participant that they will be doing two studies and that in the first one, they will be completing a survey about opinions and activities.

For those in the high-level condition, tell them that the question to consider is: "Why do I maintain good physical health?". Explain that they should fill in the four responses on the sheet by answering why they would engage in their previous answer. Give sufficient time for the participant to fill in the form.

For those in the low-level group, have them consider: "How do I maintain good physical health?". Note that the only difference here is answering how.

Following the manipulation phase, have everyone read four scenarios that describe an item they might buy. Ask them to indicate the dollar amount they would pay to receive the item immediately or delayed in time, ranging from one month to a year.

Finally, use funneled debriefing and ask a series of increasingly probing questions to assess whether participants had any suspicion or awareness regarding the experimental manipulations. Afterwards, thank them for taking part in the study.

To analyze the data, have two judges who are unaware of the experimental conditions, independently assess each participant’s level of construal based on the abstractness of their responses to the why versus how manipulation.

If a response was a low-level answer—referred to as subordinate means—code it as a negative one. If the reply to the same statement was high-level—known as a superordinate end—code it as a positive one. Otherwise, record the response as a 0.

Sum the ratings of each participant’s four responses to create an index ranging from -4 to +4, with positive scores indicating higher levels of construal. Graph the averages and use a two-sample t-test to confirm that the high-level condition resulted in a significantly higher mean than the low-level group.

To examine self-control, compute the difference scores by subtracting the dollar value participants were willing to pay for the delayed outcome from the amount they were willing to pay for an immediate result. Large difference scores indicate stronger preferences for the immediate, and hence, a lack of self-control.

Graph the average difference scores and use multivariate analysis of variance with the two levels of construal and four scenarios as factors to assess significance.

Results showed that those primed in the high-level manipulation preferred immediate over delayed outcomes less than those primed in the low-level condition, suggesting that construal level affects self-control.

Now that you are familiar with how thinking abstractly versus concretely can impact self-control, let’s look at other real-life situations where the theory can be applied, such as in diplomacy and advertising.

In international diplomacy, the construal level of those involved can be the difference between war and peace. If a situation is approached with a broad and global perspective, enhancing the perceived psychological distance and thus eliciting greater self-control, there is a greater likelihood of peace.

In contrast, approaching a situation with a narrow and specific perspective—shrinking the perceived psychological distance and reducing self-control—enhances the likelihood of escalation. Without a doubt, it is often better when cooler heads prevail.

Researchers have shown that Construal Level Theory can be used to influence consumers’ decisions. For example, when a buyer’s mindset is at a psychological distance from making a purchase, advertisements also viewed from afar—such as billboards—should accentuate higher-level attributes, like the desirability of a product.

Conversely, ads viewed at the time of purchase, like in-store fliers, should emphasize low-level attributes, such as feasibility and price, to match the mindset shift to one that is more detail-oriented. Thus, tailoring marketing campaigns to match a shopper’s level of construal can lead to increased sales.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s video on the effects of thinking abstractly or concretely on self-control. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design and execute an experiment with manipulations of construal levels, how to analyze and assess the results, as well as how to apply the principles to a number of real-world situations.

Thanks for watching!

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