Author(s), Title and Publication
Namkoong, J. E., & Henderson, M. D. (2014). It’s simple and I know it!: Abstract construals reduce causal uncertainty. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(3), 352-359.

Summary
When negative events occur (e.g., a mass shooting), individuals tend to seek explanations of why such things happen. The search for answers and meanings fundamentally motivates behavior. The present research explores whether construing a negative event more abstractly creates a more simplified understanding of the event and subsequently less uncertainty about why the event happened (i.e., causal uncertainty). Specifically, the research demonstrates that participants who were led to construe a negative event in a more abstract manner felt less uncertain about why that event happened (Experiments 1 and 2). Further, participants who were led to construe a negative event more abstractly exhibited a simplified understanding of the event (Experiment 3a) and that adoption of a more simplified understanding of an event decreased participants’ causal uncertainty about the event (Experiment 3b).

Method
In the first experiment (N = 194), participants were manipulated with either high or low causal uncertainty about a negative event (a product failure). To measure whether abstract (vs. concrete) construals impact causal uncertainty, participants were then engaged in a construal level task that was either related or unrelated to the negative event. Finally, the causal uncertainty about the product failure was measured.

In the second experiment (N = 196), a highly publicized negative event (a mass shooting) that elicited much causal uncertainty was used as the main scenario and indirectly varied whether participants construed the event at a higher or lower level. Previous work has shown that events that occur in the distant rather than near past naturally elicit more abstract construals of events. Thus, the event was framed as being in the temporally distant or near past. After briefly reminding participants of the mass shooting event, including how many days had passed since it occurred, participants were presented with a sliding scale designed to manipulate their construal level. Finally, the causal uncertainty about the product failure was measured.

In experiment 3a (N = 202), a similar procedure as in experiment 2 was followed. After manipulating participants’ subjective distance from the shooting, participants were presented with a comprehensive list of potential causes of the mass shooting event that were frequently mentioned in the media and public discourse. To assess the degree to which participants had a simplified understanding of the causes behind the shooting, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they believed each cause was responsible for the shooting.

In experiment 3b (N = 204), participants were presented with the identical list of potential causes used in experiment 3a. Using this list, the authors further manipulated participants’ concentration or spreading of causal attribution (i.e., whether individuals focused on relatively few or many possible causes behind an event): participants were asked to pick from the list that provided either the two most important causes (more simplified understanding) or six most important causes (less simplified understanding) behind the mass shooting event.

Key Findings

  • Participants felt less causally uncertain about a negative event when it was construed in a more abstract manner.
  • Participants felt less causally uncertain about a negative event when it was framed as being farther in the past.
  • Participants who construed the event at a higher level had a more simplified understanding of why the event happened, and thus identified relatively fewer number of possible causes behind its occurrence.
  • Participants who focused on relatively fewer number of possible causes felt less uncertain about why the event happened.

Implications for Practice
Causal uncertainty is associated with a host of negative psychological states. Therefore, people are strongly motivated to reduce causal uncertainty. The study findings imply that more abstract construals may be particularly helpful as people cope with traumatic events of high uncertainty. Certainty about what causes tragic events gives people a sense of direction for action. People launching petitions for government actions, constituents voting for policies, or even consumers boycotting against products are often motivated by their certainty about the causes behind negative events. The study findings imply that eliciting more abstract construals of events should increase this state of understanding and subsequently foster greater behavioral conviction.

Location of Article
This article is available online at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marlone_Henderson/publication/260288207_Social_Psychological_and_Personality_Science_It%27s_Simple_and_I_Know_It_Abstract_Construals_Reduce_Causal_Uncertainty/links/0deec5308c49e97ed0000000.pdf

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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