People directly experience only the here and now. It is impossible to experience the past and the future, other places, other people, and alternatives to reality. And yet, memories, plans, predictions, hopes, and counterfactual alternatives populate our minds, influence our emotions, and guide our choice and action. How do we transcend the here and now to include distal entities? How do we plan for the distant future, understand other people’s point of view, and take into account hypothetical alternatives to reality? Construal level theory (CLT) proposes that we do so by forming abstract mental construals of distal objects. Thus, although we cannot experience what is not present, we can make predictions about the future, remember the past, imagine other people’s reactions, and speculate about what might have been. Predictions, memories, and speculations are all mental constructions, distinct from direct experience. They serve to transcend the immediate situation and represent psychologically distant objects. Psychological distance is a subjective experience that something is close or far away from the self, here, and now. Psychological distance is thus egocentric: Its reference point is the self, here and now, and the different ways in which an object might be removed from that point—in time, space, social distance, and hypotheticality—constitute different distance dimensions.
According to CLT, then, people traverse different psychological distances by using similar mental construal processes. Because the various distances have the same egocentric reference point, they should all be cognitively related to each other and similarly affect and be affected by level of construal. As psychological distance increases, construals would become more abstract, and as level of abstraction increases, so too would the psychological distances people envisage. Construal levels thus expand and contract one’s mental horizon. The different distances should also similarly influence prediction, evaluation, and action, inasmuch as these outcomes are mediated by construal. The present article builds upon our earlier work on temporal construal theory, which focused in particular on the way that temporal distance from future events influences representation and judgment (Liberman & Trope, 1998
; Trope & Liberman, 2003
). Going beyond this earlier theory, we now treat temporal construal theory as a special case of a general theory of psychological distance. At the core of the proposed theory is a functional approach to construal levels, according to which mental construal processes serve to traverse psychological distances and switch between proximal and distal perspectives on objects. We describe the properties of the mental construal processes that enable them to fulfill this function and further explicate our approach by relating it to extant theories of how people respond to distant objects. Some of these ideas were presented in earlier literature reviews and book chapters (Liberman & Trope, 2008
; Liberman, Trope, & Stephan, 2007
; Trope, Liberman, & Wakslak, 2007
). The present article presents a more advanced and comprehensive formulation of the theory and examination of related theories and research.
The article consists of three main parts. In the first part, we present the basic assumptions of CLT. We explain what we mean by construal levels and why they are related to psychological distance (Section I) and examine the cognitive relationships among the four dimensions of psychological distance (Section II) and their bidirectional relationship to level of construal (Section III). In the second part, we turn to the construal-mediated consequences of psychological distance for prediction, preference, and self-regulation (Sections IV–VI). In the third part, we address open questions about psychological distance and discuss new directions for future research (Sections VII–IX).