Near-Far Work Continues

I haven’t posted as much on near-far theory (= “construal level theory”) lately, but that’s more because my interests have wandered; research progress has continued. Here are four recent papers.

People who use more abstract language seem more powerful:

Power can be gained through appearances: People who exhibit behavioral signals of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power. In the current article, we examine power signals within interpersonal communication, exploring whether use of concrete versus abstract language is seen as a signal of power. Because power activates abstraction, perceivers may expect higher power individuals to speak more abstractly and therefore will infer that speakers who use more abstract language have a higher degree of power. Across a variety of contexts and conversational subjects in 7 experiments, participants perceived respondents as more powerful when they used more abstract language (vs. more concrete language). Abstract language use appears to affect perceived power because it seems to reflect both a willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking. (more)

Sounds evoke far mode when they are novel, slow, and reverberate more:

Psychological distance and abstractness primes have been shown to increase one’s level of construal. We tested the idea that auditory cues which are related to distance and abstractness (vs. proximity and concreteness) trigger abstract (vs. concrete) construal. Participants listened to musical sounds that varied in reverberation, novelty of harmonic modulation, and metrical segmentation. In line with the hypothesis, distance/abstractness cues in the sounds instigated the formation of broader categories, increased the preference for global as compared to local aspects of visual patterns, and caused participants to put more weight on aggregated than on individualized product evaluations. The relative influence of distance/abstractness cues in sounds, as well as broader implications of the findings for basic research and applied settings, is discussed. (more)

Employees want concrete feedback from direct leaders and abstract vision from higher leaders:

Three studies tested the hypothesis, derived from construal-level theory, that hierarchical distance between leaders and followers moderates the effectiveness of leader behaviors such that abstract behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across large hierarchical distances, whereas concrete behaviors produce more positive outcomes when enacted across small hierarchical distances. In Study 1 (N = 2,206 employees of a telecommunication organization), job satisfaction was higher when direct supervisors provided employees with concrete feedback and hierarchically distant leaders shared with them their abstract vision rather than vice versa. Study 2 orthogonally crossed hierarchical distances with communication type, operationalized as articulating abstract values versus sharing a detailed story exemplifying the same values; construal misfit mediated the interactive effects of hierarchical distance and communication type on organizational commitment and social bonding. Study 3 similarly manipulated hierarchical distances and communication type, operationalized as concrete versus abstract calls for action in the context of a severe professional crisis. Group commitment and participation in collective action were higher when a hierarchically proximate leader communicated a concrete call for action and a hierarchically distant leader communicated an abstract call for action rather than vice versa. These findings highlight construal fit’s positive consequences for individuals and organizations. (more)

Tasks look easier when they are far away:

Psychological distance can reduce the subjective experience of difficulty caused by task complexity and task anxiety. Four experiments were conducted to test several related hypotheses. Psychological distance was altered by activating a construal mind-set and by varying bodily distance from a given task. Activating an abstract mind-set reduced the feeling of difficulty. A direct manipulation of distance from the task produced the same effect: participants found the task to be less difficult when they distanced themselves from the task by leaning back in their seats. The experiments not only identify psychological distance as a hitherto unexplored but ubiquitous determinant of task difficulty but also identify bodily distance as an antecedent of psychological distance. (more)

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  • The last article is available ungated at

    Regarding the link between abstract language and perceived power: it has also been found, apparently, that abstraction doesn’t have the effect of enhancing status. ( )

    [High power coupled with law status has been shown to induce social conflict.]

    • Name

      Why is that, anyway? I would have assumed from the experiments that talking more abstractly would at the very least be instinctively seen as ‘putting on the guise’ of a powerful person.

      • That’s a good question. It might be significant that the author speaks of abstractness signaling power. (I don’t think I’ve seen, in this literature, signaling and construal-level theory expressly linked.) In the signaling framework, the question is what is the cost of a person who isn’t powerful using abstract language?

        I think the cost is that if you use abstract language and don’t habitually think in an abstract fashion, your speech or writing will sound artificial. That is, we are good at detecting phoniness in this respect.

  • Guest

    Random thought for you, Robin, regarding abstraction as a sign of power (in a professional context). Maybe you’ve considered it. There are pleasant and unpleasant jobs at the modern American economy. Abstraction is more pleasant than performing a detailed analysis or setting a sales forecast because abstraction carries less risk and, while there may be a ‘right or wrong’ answer pertaining to the optimal strategy for an organization, a combination of obfuscation, politics, and a lack of numbers allows the abstractor to abstract as he or she wishes with little to no marginal impact on the operation of the business.

    Thus, those who have achieved higher power through experience, politics, or inheritance, will necessarily choose abstract tasks for themselves. Thus abstraction is more of a spoils for the powerful than it is a strategy for becoming powerful.

    • The ability to get away with doing abstraction could signal that one has power.

  • Psychologists have found that powerful subjectively experience slower time. I haven’t seen this finding related to CLT, but it would make sense that far mode produces a slower sense of time (along with faster mental activity). [Organisms have more time to escape a threat or prepare to catch a reward when it is distant.] A recent paper on power and time perception (accepted for JPSP) fails, however, to mention construal level as part of the mechanism: (The Power to Control Time: Power Influences How Much Time (You Think) You Have. [Time perception is likely the omitted link between procrastination and CLT–a link Katja Grace and I have separately addressed.
    Also, I’ve just posted Plain-talk writing countersignals power invoking signaling theory and CLT: .