A Brief Introduction to Construal Level Theory

Though people live in the here-and-now, they have the capacity to think about future events, remote places, distant others, and alternative realities. This ability to think about events that extend beyond the immediate context is one that many might take for granted. There is some research that suggests, however, that this may be a uniquely human skill. Construal level theory (CLT) attempts to explain how people accomplish this remarkable feat.

Central to understanding CLT is the idea of psychological distance. Psychological distance refers to the removal of an object or event from direct experience – what is happening to me in the immediate here-and-now. Events can differ in degree to when (time), where (space), to whom (social distance), and whether (hypotheticality) they will happen. The qualifier “psychological” in the term “psychological distance” refers to the idea that the mind treats these different dimensions of distance in a mentally similar manner. For example, although time and space may be very different types of information, CLT suggests that we treat them interchangeably. Thus, from a psychological vantage point, just as an event one month from now is more distant than an event tomorrow, an event occurring to you is more distant one occurring directly to me.

A challenge to thinking about psychologically distant events is that we often lack information about detailed specifics. When we are immersed in an event, we can use our sense to collect rich information about the here-and-now. As events extend beyond the purview of our senses, we have to rely more on our memory to create event representations or construals. In the absence of reliable information about the specifics of psychologically distant events, CLT suggests that people engage in high-level construal – representing events by their abstract and essential features. For example, I know that a beach vacation involves white sandy beaches bathed in warm sun. I may not know which beach, how white the sand is, nor how warm the sun will be, but all beach vacations have these features. By representing distant future events by their essential features, people can think about and make decisions about these events (e.g., do I want to go on a beach vacation next year?).

As events become psychologically closer, information about detailed specifics becomes more available and reliable. CLT suggests that people incorporate this information by engaging in low-level construal – representing events in terms of their more concrete and idiosyncratic features. Details allow people to distinguish an event from others like it. For example, knowing that this beach vacation will occur in May in Miami, for example, allows one to distinguish it from other generic beach vacations. This allows people to tailor their thoughts, feelings, and behavior to the unique demands that this specific event presents (e.g., what do I need in Miami that I didn’t require on my other beach vacations?).

Research inspired by CLT has demonstrated that how people construe events as a function of distance can influence judgment, motivation, decision-making, and behavior. For example, research on CLT has addressed questions such as:

  • Why do people make decisions that they later regret?
  • How do people balance trade-offs between their ideals and what is practical?
  • Why do some people succeed – while others fail – at resisting temptation?
  • When do people act altruistically vs. selfishly, and why?

To read more about CLT research, navigate to the Selected Publications page.

We also encourage readers to visit our sister site – Distances in Organizations – to learn more about CLT research in the context of organizational behavior.