Temporal Construal Theory Definition
Temporal construal theory is a general theoretical framework that describes the effects of psychological distance on thinking, decision making, and behavior. Psychologically distant objects and events are those beyond one’s direct experience of the here and now and can be distant on a number of dimensions: time, space, social distance (self vs. other, ingroup vs. out-group), and hypotheticality. A central proposition of temporal construal theory is that psychologically distant objects or events evoke mental representations, or construals, that capture the general and essential features of the objects or events (i.e., high-level construals), whereas psychologically near objects or events bring to mind unique, concrete, and incidental features (i.e., low-level construals). The activation of high-versus low-level construals produces systematic differences in individuals’ understanding of objects and events, leading to changes in evaluation, judgment, and action.
Temporal Construal Theory Background
Temporal construal theory (also referred to as construal level theory) was originally proposed by Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope as an integrative framework for understanding the effects of time on decision making and behavior. Objects and events, however, can be distant not only in time but also in space, social distance, and hypotheticality. As such, the theory has since been expanded beyond time to incorporate these other dimensions of psychological distance. The term construal refers to the construction of knowledge structures that represent objects or events in an individual’s mind (i.e., how information is processed so that an individual can think about and understand an object or event).
When objects and events are psychologically distant, less information is known about them. An individual can learn about a dog, but without direct experience, there is little to distinguish this particular dog from other dogs. Without such information, individuals can only think of objects and events in broad, general terms (i.e., high-level construals). Thus, the individual might know that the dog has four furry legs and barks. As the objects and events become more psychologically near, direct experience of these objects and events becomes increasingly available. This allows individuals to think about objects and events in more concrete details, highlighting their specific, unique, incidental features (low-level construals). Through more direct experience, for example, an individual might learn about the unique properties or characteristics of a dog: the breed, specific coloration, or temperament. This association between the psychological distance of an object and its corresponding level of construal is thought to be so ingrained that respective construals are activated even when all necessary information is available. That is, even if an individual knows that a dog is called Fluffy and is a white poodle, when the dog is psychologically distant (e.g., far away in time or space), the individual is more likely to think of the dog as a furry animal with four legs rather than as Fluffy.
As high- and low-level construals bring to mind different features of objects and events, they can systematically change individuals’ decisions and behavior. They can focus individuals on contrasting aspects of a situation and lead to very different evaluations and judgments of the same thing. Going on a vacation in the abstract (high-level construal) may evoke images of the beach and pleasant company. When psychologically distant, going on a vacation should therefore engender positive feelings. Going on a vacation, however, more concretely (low-level construal) entails making plans, dealing with travel agencies, and having to bear the inconveniences of traveling. Thus, when psychologically near, going on a vacation may evoke more negative evaluations. Hence, psycho-logical distance, through the activation of different levels of construal, plays an important role in human decision making and behavior.
Evidence for Temporal Construal Theory
Empirical data have supported the proposition that increasing psychological distance leads individuals to construe objects and events more broadly and generally (i.e., activate high-level construals). Research has shown, for example, that individuals organize objects associated with temporally distant events in fewer, broader, and more abstract categories than objects associated with temporally near events. Similarly, when feeling socially distanced from others, individuals are more accurate in recalling the gist rather than the specifics of material that they have seen before. Individuals are also more likely to access global, abstract concepts, such as stereotypes and traits, when making judgments about psychologically distant others, whether they be distant by physical space, time, or social distance.
There is also accumulating evidence that by changing how individuals construe situations, psychological distance can influence the kinds of judgments and decisions individuals make. High-level construals, when activated by increasing psychological distance, lead individuals to be more concerned with high- rather than low-level features of objects and events. That is, individuals are more likely to make choices on the basis of global, primary concerns over local, secondary considerations when events are psychologically distant rather than near. For example, increasing the temporal distance of an event leads individuals to make decisions more on the basis of ends (why they might engage in an action) rather than means (how they would perform an action). They also prefer activities that accord with their goals and values to a greater extent when those activities are associated with distant future rather than near future events.
All of the research described here has suggested that increasing any dimension of psychological distance— time, space, social distance, or hypotheticality—leads to similar effects on mental representation (i.e., activates high-level rather than low-level construals) and decision making (i.e., preferences and choices based on high-level rather than low-level features). Providing additional support for the notion that these various dimensions of psychological distance are interrelated is research that suggests that thinking about one type of distance facilitates thinking about others. That is, thinking about “here” leads one also to think about “now” and “us,” whereas thinking about “there” leads to thoughts of “then” and “them.”
Beyond Psychological Distance
The psychological distance of objects and events are not the only factor that leads individuals to evoke high- versus low-level construals. It has been found, for example, that positive moods tend to activate higher-level construals as compared to negative moods. Moreover, engaging in any mental process that leads one to extract generalized properties of objects and events, such as causal reasoning or superordinate categorization, can activate high-level rather than low-level construals. Construals can also carry over from unrelated prior contexts. For example, imagining one’s life at a distant location or distant time can lead individuals to use high-level construals in subsequent contexts, even those that had nothing to do with what one imagined.
In addition, there may be individual differences in the use of high- versus low-level construals. That is, in addition to situational factors, there may be personality factors in the tendency to represent objects and events at different levels of construal. Some individuals may habitually use high-level construals, whereas others tend to use low-level construals.
Importance of Temporal Construal Theory
Individuals make decisions about objects and events that are psychologically distant in almost every domain of life. Indeed, the ability to make choices about objects and events beyond one’s direct experience is one of the hallmarks of the human mind. Despite this remarkable ability, individuals are fallible decision makers, often making decisions that seem good at the time but that they later regret. Temporal construal theory provides a general framework for understanding why and how this occurs and has important implications for interventions aimed at improving decision making. As such, the theory has been applied to a wide array of research topics in psychology that range from attribution, attitudes, and self-control to interpersonal perception, social power, and negotiation.
- Trope, Y, & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal construal. Psychological Review, 110, 403-421.