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Understanding Consumer Psychology: Construal Level Theory

, December 1, 2016, 0 Comments

In an effort to understand the behaviour of consumers in their process of buying, many theories, concepts, models etc., have been forwarded. From social psychology marketers have adopted Construal level theory (CLT) to explain how psychological distance influences individuals’ thoughts and behavior in evaluating a product or a service.

Construal plays an important role in situations where people are required to look beyond the information available to them. This article is intended to explain CLT framework in brief, its basic theoretical approach and its implications for consumer psychology. The article would find a place of interest among the students who specialize in marketing.

A major purpose of the studying consumer behaviour is to have a good understanding of the consumer psychology and get a better insight of the ways in which individuals evaluate the products or services. Many studies on the topic have shown that quality and desirability of a product or service are not the only factors that influence consumers’ evaluation; some other factors also impact the final outcome.

What factors could they be? How is to determine the other factors or the type of other factors that play a role at a given point? In order to identify them we should understand that we live here in the present and experience the same. It is impossible to experience the future or other places. Same is true for the past; we cannot experience it albeit memories linger on. Regarding the future, we have hopes, make plans and predictions.

All these go on to guide our choice and decision making. Construal level theory (CLT) expounds that the individuals plan the distant future or other people’s view point by forming abstract mental construals. Our memories, speculations and predictions are all mental construals. Through mental construals one can make predictions or remember the past or imagine other people’s reactions to an event or an object. The mental construals assist in overcoming the present scenario and envision the psychologically distant objects.

Construal level theory

The term construal is derived from social psychology. It refers to the process of people perceiving, comprehending and interpreting the environment around them. CLT describes the relationship between psychological distance and the people’s thought – in abstract or in clear terms. The theory expounds that people think more abstractly of those objects that are further away while they think more concretely of the closer the objects.

Psychological distance is one’s own perception of how close or far away an object is from self and how later the event is to take place from the present. Hence it is subjective and egocentric. It always starts from the present, here and self. An object or an event can be removed from self in different ways – in time, space, social distance, and hypothetically. These make different psychological distance dimensions and are respectively called temporal, spatial, social and hypothetical distances.[1]

Level of Construal

For describing events close at hand, individuals use specific, low-level construals and for events removed in one of the dimensions explained earlier, abstract and high-level construals are used. Low-level construals are less structured more contextual and include subordinate and incidental features of events. In other words, low level construals are when individuals think in details and focus on the secondary features of the event or object that are not important to understanding the event or object. In contrast, high-level construals are represented schematically and are the gist from the information available to the individual. High-level construals also consist of superordinate features of events. Individuals thinking on this level are looking at the bigger picture and not focusing on the details; they are looking at the forest and not the trees. Thus, it can be observed that the near future events are described in clear details whereas distant events are described in an abstract at the cost of secondary and incidental features.

Types of psychological distances

Temporal distance

Temporal distance refers to the events that are removed from the present time. For example, if one thinks of an event which is to take place four months later, there is greater temporal distance than thinking about an event that is to take place next week. According to CLT, planning fallacy, which describes how people do not think in detail, happens in distant future events as they are thought in higher level and more in the abstract. A study was undertaken where students were asked to indicate how many hours they planned to spend on various activities such as studying, exercising, etc., during the next week or in the week few months later.

Researchers found that while planning for the near future, the students, estimated accurately on the time spent on each activity while planning the distant future the students did not take the practical limitations of time into account.[2] Time discounting or temporal discounting is another phenomenon involving the relationship between time and the extent to which the event is considered to be valuable. The theory here is that nearer events are considered to be more valuable that future events.

Spatial distance

The physical distance between an individual and the place where the event under consideration is taking place is the spatial distance. According to CLT, an event that is happening at a near location is seen in more concrete terms than the event that is happening in a far away location.

Social distance

Social distance is the degree to which two or more social groups or individuals are related to each other. It is the feeling of an individual as to how he or she interacts with other group members. The more similar the groups are more short is their distance. Social distance is more when the people in a social group can not relate to the others in the group.[3] Another form of social distance is the interpersonal similarity.

Hypothetical distance

Hypothetical distance is another type of psychological distance discussed in CLT. Hypothetically denotes the probability of an event taking place. For an event that is highly likely the hypothetical distance is short and it is hypothetically far in case of an event that is less likely to occur.[3] The hypothetical distance signifies how close to reality an event is. According to CLT, hypothetically close events are construed at low level and hypothetically far events are construed at high level. Optimism has a role to play in hypothetical distance and can influence an individual in making plans for the future.

Relevance of CLT to Marketing

Presently CLT is used in understanding consuming decisions, organizational behaviour, government policy-making and other areas. We would focus our discussion on aspects that are relevant to marketing. The usefulness of CLT can be understood from the fact that individuals form mental pictures of things, products, services, etc., based on the information available to them and according to their processing capacity; they then form attitudes and behavioral intentions. Marketers in order to be effective, have to make sure that appropriate business information is passed on to the consumers by adopting the correct marketing strategy.

As far as the goods are concerned the role of CLT is minimal as the psychological distances play a little role. However, in case of services, which are essentially intangible, the psychological distances impact the consumers’ buying intentions more than they do in case of goods. This is because the differences in the perception of psychological distances by different consumers. Further, different marketing activities will have different impact on the psychological distance, resulting in different construal levels of consumer leading to different consuming behaviour. Hence is the relevance of CLT to marketing. The model is shown in the figure.construal-level-theory-marketing-marketexpress-in

Based on CLT different marketing strategies are designed to influence and manage consumer behaviour. Though more research has to be done, one may say that CLT plays greater role in case of marketing of service that goods. Yet, prudent use of marketing strategy can shorten the psychological distance and may influence the final buying decision. Further, CLT  in the marketing sphere.

[1] Bar-Anan, Yoav, Liberman, Nira, & Trope, Yaacov (2006). The association between psychological distance and construal level: Evidence from an implicit association test. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135(4), 609-622.

[2] Liberman, Nira, & Trope, Yaacov (1998). The role of feasibility and desirability in near and distant future decisions: A test of temporal distance on level of construal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 5-18.

[3] Matthews, J. L., & Matlock, T. (2011). Understanding the link between spatial distance and social distance. Social Psychology, 42(3), 185-192.

[4] Wakslak, Cheryl J., Trope, Yaacov, Liberman, Nira, & Alony, R. (2006). Seeing the forest when entry is unlikely: Probability and the mental representation of events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135, 641–653.