Answer the following questions:
A telephone is
(a) A gadget to make calls
(b) A solution for your communication, computation and entertainment needs
A holiday trip means
(a) Catching a flight
(b) An escape from the tedium of the day-to-day grind
If you answered (a) to both the questions, you were likely focusing on the minute details of the question, while if you answered (b), you were looking at the larger picture. This is obvious right? Except that it’s not. A smart marketer or HR manager can use a psychological framework called construal level theory to nudge you into one of these frames of mind, and the results can be surprising.
Construal level theory states that the human mind can construe anything at either a high level or a low level. A high-level construal is an abstract visualisation like in option (b) while a low-level construal leads to a concrete visualisation like option (a).
Construal level theory states that the human mind can construe anything at either a high level or a low level. A high-level construal is an abstract visualisation while a low-level construal leads to a concrete visualisation
Now, this theory, proposed by psychologists Nira Lieberman and Yaacov Trope, suggests that this construal level is a function of another concept called psychological distance. So what is psychological distance?
Imagine that you are planning a holiday after two months. This time frame is fairly far away, and thus, distant to your mind. According to Lieberman and Trope, this high psychological distance should cause you to visualise the holiday more abstractly than if you were to take an impromptu holiday tomorrow. Thus, you would be less sensitive to details like price, exact specifications of your rooms, etc while choosing a psychologically distant holiday as compared to an impromptu holiday.
Psychological distance can also be manipulated in other ways. For example, research by Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer has shown that using hard-to-read fonts in a message or advertising can manipulate the mind into a higher construal level, while easy-to-read fonts can lead to lower construal levels. This is because difficulty in reading leads to heightened psychological distance as well.
Thus, you would be less sensitive to details like price, exact specifications of your rooms, etc while choosing a psychologically distant holiday as compared to an impromptu holiday
High levels of construal have also been shown to lead consumers to select more hedonic rather than utilitarian alternatives. Remember when we spoke of how lighting affects your food choices? Thus, consistent with construal level theory, you would be more likely to construe your meal abstractly in a dimly lit posh restaurant than in a brightly lit one!
Construal level can also be manipulated by perceived height. A recent interesting study by Pankaj Aggarwal and Min Zhao suggests that a simple manipulation of height can affect psychological distance, and consequently construal levels, leading to vastly different choices on certain occasions. In one experiment, half the respondents (undergraduate students at the University of Toronto) were randomly selected and asked to imagine themselves in a job fair on an upper floor of a building, while the others were told to imagine themselves on a lower floor.
They were then asked to choose between two hypothetical jobs — a business implementation manager (detail oriented, low construal level) or a business planning manager (abstract, high construal level). People imagining themselves in a higher storey systematically chose the latter option more than those imagining themselves in the lower level. In another experiment, they showed similar choice patterns by simply seating respondents on high and low stools! Now you know why CEOs and the top brass sit on the top floor of your office. It’s not just the view — maybe they need to be at a higher construal level while making high-level decisions!
Construal level can also be manipulated by perceived height… Now you know why CEOs and the top brass sit on the top floor of your office. It’s not just the view — maybe they need to be at a higher construal level while making high-level decisions!
Construal levels can also affect the creativity of your design team. Imagine if the iPhone’s designers were at low construal — they may have yet another marginally sleeker device for making calls and sending texts rather than the revolutionary smartphone capable of gaming, movies and much more than just a normal phone.
Other situations may require lower construal levels. For example, someone selling low cost soaps or toilet paper certainly does not want their customer being primed into high construal levels, becoming less price sensitive and moving to higher-priced competitors.
Thus, the next time you have a decision to make, stop and think. What construal level are you at?
This column is intended to showcase interesting academic research in marketing. The technically oriented reader is encouraged to read the original research articles cited in the column.
Prithwiraj Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of Marketing, IIM Bangalore. Views are personal.
Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira
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