AuthorsA. B. Kanten
TitleLooking at the World From a Distance: Construal Level in Time Predictions and Counterfactual Thinking
AfilliationSoftware Engineering, Software Engineering
Publication TypePhD Thesis
Year of Publication2012
PublisherUniversity of Oslo
Thesis Typephd

The main purpose of present thesis is to examine the role of psychological distance in two distinct types of predictions. First, the effects of distance on predictions of task duration are investigated. Second, we examine how people predict the consequences of real versus “more distant” counterfactual events. In the three papers that make up the thesis, construal level theory (CLT) was adopted as the main theoretical framework. CLT states that as people mentally transcend the experienced self in terms of time, space, social distance, or hypoheticality, they increasingly rely on abstract high level construals over concrete low level construals to form mental representations. A wealth of research has demonstrated that this shift in construal level affects judgments in a variety of domains. In Papers 1 and 2, the relation between distance/construal level and performance time estimates is investigated. With construal level manipulated by means of temporal distance to the task, degree of hypotheticality, and construal level priming, it is shown that abstraction causes task duration estimates to increase. As an explanation of this effect, the notion of time contraction is introduced as the mediating mechanism. Specifically, it is suggested that time units appear shorter as people move up in construal level so that more time units are needed to cover the same amount of work. Direct support for the operation of this mechanism was obtained in Paper 1. The finding that temporally distant tasks were perceived as more time consuming than more imminent tasks stands in stark contrast to past research on future optimism (temporal distance tends to increase rather than decrease optimism), and perhaps also to common sense (tasks seem simpler and more manageable when viewed from a distance). Inspired by these observations, in Paper 2, we sought to investigate whether there would be a contrast between what people believe is the effect of temporal distance on duration estimates and what the 4 actual experimental findings indicate. The results showed that students with very little background in psychology had no consistent opinions regarding the direction of the effect. However, second year psychology students consistently predicted, in contrast to the actual results, that temporal distance would produce lower estimates. These results imply that the effect of distance on duration estimates reported in Papers 1 and 2 are non-trivial and that people seem to have a very limited “metacognitive” access to their own estimation behaviour. In Paper 3, the relevance of CLT to counterfactual thinking is examined. It is suggested that since counterfactual possibilities, by definition, are more distant on the hypotheticality dimension than events that presumably are going to happen, counterfactuals should be conceived in more prototypical terms than ordinary predictions. It is hypothesized that for events with a clear valence, this focus on prototypicality should lead speculations of “what would have happened if...” to be more extreme than predictions of “what will happen”. In line with this, the results showed that when presented with critical situations that took a turn for the better or the worse, people evaluated the consequences of the better outcomes as better and the consequences of the worse outcomes as worse, when presented as counterfactuals rather than actual occurrences. In sum, the thesis contributes to the literature on time predictions by showing that distance increases task duration estimates via how people represent time. The thesis also contributes to the field of counterfactual thinking by demonstrating that counterfactuals promote a focus on extreme consequences. More generally, the thesis adds to the growing body of research on CLT by presenting novel ideas on the effects of shifts in construal level.