One way to manipulate your level of abstraction related to a task

by Andy_McKenzie1 min read19th Aug 20135 comments


AbstractionExercises / Problem-Sets
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In construal level theory, ideas can be classified along a spectrum from concrete ("near" in Robin Hanson's terminology) to abstract ("far"). As a summary, here is the abstract from a 2010 review (pdf): 

People are capable of thinking about the future, the past, remote locations, another person’s perspective, and counterfactual alternatives. Without denying the uniqueness of each process, it is proposed that they constitute different forms of traversing psychological distance. Psychological distance is egocentric: Its reference point is the self in the here and now, and the different ways in which an object might be removed from that point—in time, in space, in social distance, and in hypotheticality— constitute different distance dimensions. Transcending the self in the here and now entails mental construal, and the farther removed an object is from direct experience, the higher (more abstract) the level of construal of that object. Supporting this analysis, research shows (a) that the various distances are cognitively related to each other, (b) that they similarly influence and are influenced by level of mental construal, and (c) that they similarly affect prediction, preference, and action.

Now, what if you want to think about some thing in a more or less near or far way? Here's one well-studied strategy to do so (e.g., see pdf here).

To think about a task in more concrete terms, ask yourself how you would do it. Then, however you answer that question, ask yourself how would you do that. Do this two (or so) more times, and you will be thinking about that task significantly more concretely. 

To think about a task in more abstract terms, ask yourself why you would do it. Then ask yourself why you would want that 3 (or so) more times. 

An excerpt from the 2007 study in the second link to give an example of how this would work: 

Suppose you indicate “taking a vacation” as one of your goals. Please write the goal in the uppermost square. Then, think why you would like to go on vacation, and write your answer in the square underneath. Suppose that you write “in order to rest.” Now, please think why you would like to rest, and write your answer in the third square. Suppose that you write “in order to renew your energy.” Finally, write in the last square why you would like to renew your energy.


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RE: how / why distinction.

John Whitmore's book Coaching for Performance goes into this. Snippit from the book:

If commanding a person to do what they need to do does not produce the desired effect, what does? Let's try a question.

  • "Are you watching the ball?" How would we respond to that? Defensively, perhaps, and we would probably lie, just as we did at school when the teacher asked us if we were paying attention.

  • "Why aren't you watching the ball?" More defensiveness -- or perhaps a little analysis if you are that way inclined. "I am," "I don't know," "because I was thinking about my grip," or, more truthfully, "because you are distracting me and making me nervous."

These are not very effective questions, but consider the effect of the following:

  • "Which way is the ball spinning as it comes toward you?"
  • "How high is it this time as it crosses the net?"
  • "Does it spin faster or slower after it bounces, this time, each time?"
  • "How far is it from your opponent when you first see which way it is spinning?"

These questions are of an altogether different order. They create four important effects that neither the other questions nor commands do:

  • This type of question compels the player to watch the ball. It is not possible to answer the question unless he or she does that.

  • The player will have to focus to a higher order than normal to give the accurate answer the question demands, providing a higher quality of input.

  • The answers sought are descriptive not judgmental, so there is no risk of descent into self-criticism or damage to self-esteem.

  • We have the benefit of a feedback loop for the coach, who is able to verify the accuracy of the player's answers and therefore the quality of concentration.

First half sounds like GTD / workflowy. Second half sounds like Goal Factoring.

But this seems more like a 5-second skill thing, which is cool. There is, of course, another skill, which is knowing what zoom level is appropriate.

First half sounds like GTD / workflowy. Second half sounds like Goal Factoring.

Agreed with these analogies.

But this seems more like a 5-second skill thing, which is cool.

When I've tried it, it's taken more like 30 s - 1 min.

Another thing separating it from a 5-second skill is that you can use it on others, too, but that could be a bit Dark Artsy.

There is, of course, another skill, which is knowing what zoom level is appropriate.


This seems deceptively important enough that I am going to attempt to think of near/far by the how/why distinction from now on.

[-][anonymous]6y -2

Construal level theory is an outdated theory. Forget it.

'"Attitudes toward risks are central to organizational decisions. These attitudes are commonly modeled by prospect theory. Construal level theory has been proposed as an alternative theory of risky choice, accounting for psychological distance deriving from temporal, spatial and social aspects of risk that are typical of agency situations. Unnoticed in the literature, the two theories make contradicting predictions. The current study investigates which theory provides a better description of risky decisions in the presence of temporal, spatial, and social factors. We find that the psychophysical effects modeled by prospect theory dominate the psychological distance effects of construal level theory.""