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Effects of Thinking Abstractly or Concretely on Self-control

Effects of Thinking Abstractly or Concretely on Self-control



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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