Construal level theory

Last week I was speaking to a client who mentioned “construal level theory,” which I had never heard of before. What it comes down to is this: The more distant an object is, the more abstractly you will think about it.  And “distance” can mean temporal distance, spatial distance, or social distance.

This is why we sometimes overcommit to things – when we are planning for events three months from now, we don’t think as much about the details as we do when those events are occurring three days from now.  Also, we tend to have more empathy for people who we perceive as similar to us in some way.

In marketing, if you are able to see in touch a product you become a little bit more likely to buy it because it’s distance from you has been reduced. Or an innovation can seem useless in the abstract until you actually see how it works and how it can affect your daily life.

Construal level theory also explains the fantastic reviews of Peter Jackson’s recent film, They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s a documentary about World War I. Typically film from that war is black-and-white, grainy, and jerky due to the technological limitations of cameras at that time.  Those films also don’t include sound. As a result, the war seems pretty distant. 

Jackson cleaned up those films, colorized them, and added ambient sound – thanks in part to the help of forensic lip-readers. The difference is incredible. No longer are the soldiers just shadowy figures on a screen. They are people who look like us and we can begin to feel empathy for the horrors they experienced.