Traps of abstraction

In a recent paper in Science, Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope review recent pyschological research on how people think about abstract situations.  They argue that there is similarity between how people cope with situations separated from their situation in time, space, social distance or uncertainty.  In their paper The Psychology of Transcending the Here and Now (2008 322 (5905): 1201) they write:

Our experiences of the world are limited to the self, here and now, yet people, events, and situations that are beyond our immediate experience populate our mind. We plan for the future, remember the past, think about remote locations, take others’ perspective, and consider alternatives to reality. In each case, we transcend the present to consider psychologically distant objects. An object is psychologically distant from us to the extent that it is remote in time (future or past) or in space; refers to experiences of others (e.g., relatives, acquaintances, or strangers); and unlikely to occur. But how do we transcend the present, evaluate, and make decisions with respect to psychologically distant objects? And how does increasing distance from objects affect the way we respond to these objects?

Although evolution, history, and child development have different time scales, we propose that the expanding horizons that all of them entail require and are enabled by the human capacity for abstract mental representation. This hypothesis is based on Construal Level Theory (CLT) of psychological distance (3, 4), which links psychological distance from objects to the mental construal of those objects. In the following, we explain what we mean by mental construal and how it relates to traversing psychological distances. We then describe research findings demonstrating that there is considerable commonality in the way people traverse different dimensions of psychological distance; that similar mental construal processes underlie traversing different distance dimensions; and that these construal processes guide the way people predict, evaluate, and plan psychologically near and distant situations.

In summary, a range of studies suggests that people rely on high-level construals to a greater extent when predicting, evaluating, and taking action with respect to more distant situations. Ironically, the increasing reliance on high-level construals for more distant situations often leads people to make more confident predictions, more polarized evaluations, and clearer choices. This result is counterintuitive if one believes that distant situations should afford less certainty and thus reduce confidence and decisiveness.

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