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

byAndy_McKenzie6y19th Aug 20135 comments


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.