Creative Cognition: The Construal Level Theory & Psychological Distance (w/ deliberate creative thinking strategies)

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Our brain is conducive to creative thinking and problem-solving – Literally, and figuratively, making mental connections. The brain is readily equipped with the necessary conditions to think critically, creatively, and out-of-the-box. All it needs is a strategic push and the skill can be developed.

One of the main indications to show that we are readily equipped is that we don’t form single memories of an object in its entirety – That means, our knowledge is not stored and delivered via Amazon-grade packaging. It is fragmented, broken down, reorganized, and stored in networks of small bits of information.

It’s more like Amazon sending you the building blocks of a new phone but only when you have some basic information about the building blocks. Otherwise, Amazon sends people to talk with the micro-experts living in your brain who teach you how to build the building blocks. Then, as millions of small deliveries take place, your brain will build an Ikea-type store of all these parts and use those parts to build a phone. Except, that phone is a concept in your mind – A network of properties, components, ideas, relationships, functions, examples, etc.

This may sound tiresome but our brain is efficient in doing that. It’s what makes the brain flexible and conducive to learning new things. Many of the micro-experts in that confusing analogy are configurations of neurons based on genetics. Many of the people which Amazon sends to talk with the micro-experts are like the interactions between our attention and raw information entering through our senses. These interactions build many Ikeas in the brain with large layouts of partly built products, fully built products, and components – all mapped to each other.

Even our neurons/cells form a network. Some are specialized in representing certain types of information but these are not nearly enough to represent a whole concept because whole concepts are complex and they have various properties and structures. The Face cells specialize in identifying faces. The Place cells specialize in location, order, and position. These types of cells are activated when we deal with a specific property of a larger concept. The way those cells fire is often linked to other neurons that deal with other types of information – color, shapes, textures, emotions, etc. These may or may not be fundamental. Perhaps geometric shapes, human bodies, etc. are fundamentally irreducible to smaller meaningful components, but not all shapes – the shape of a rocket, the shape of, buildings, the shape of you, etc.

Without the intent of distraction, you might enjoy the theory of cross-modal correspondence (highest construals) and how it applies to real-world things like food psychology.

All of this highlights one important aspect of the brain & mind – Information is linked in a network of webs or webs of networks. Neurons which process, encode, give-permanence-to small and large bits of information, are also arranged in a network – the popular consensus is that each of the 100 billion neurons connects to thousands of other neurons and each neuron activates differently based on hundreds of specific chemical properties.

We can travel across this network and that traveling can be used as a deliberate creativity hack.

Let’s introduce the Construal level theorythe relationship between psychological distance and depth of understanding with how abstract or concrete a person’s thinking/perception is. It can be interpreted in a social psychological sense – how we relate to others and how distant our sense of self is. It can be interpreted in a cognitive psychological sense – how we process information. And, it can be perceived from a mental health sense – how distance affects mental health. We’ll focus on the cognitive psychology sense in this article.

Studies show that the 'construal level theory' is a powerful framework for improving creative cognition & abstract thinking via the manipulation of psychological distance, levels of processing, and processing difficulty. Click To Tweet


Creative Cognition & The Construal Level Theory

Take a mobile phone. Your phone. What brand is it? What color is it? The answer is specific.

Look at your mobile phone. What is it?

The answer is variable. On one obvious level, it is a mobile phone. One another level it is a communication device. For the sake of answering this question, let’s call it a communication device.

Take your communication device. Now think – what communication devices are you familiar with? How many answers do you have?

Maybe 5, 6? Walkie talkies, radios, landlines, laptops with skype, etc.

Pause for a second.

Could you have easily jumped to the examples of communication devices based on the first question you answered (what brand is it?).

My guess is that calling it a communication device made it easier. The jump from your mobile phone brand to examples of communication devices is not that obvious.

What you did is – you traveled through the construal levels. Construal levels theory is a framework that describes the ‘level’ at which you construe/understand a concept. In a broader sense, it speaks of the psychological distance/magnification you have regarding a concept or perception. We’ll get to the distance bit at the end of the article.


Low construal levels are specific and narrow (by definition) in how they relate to other concepts. Its characteristics are local processing, focused attention, detail-oriented, and concrete-concepts based on precise attributes.

High construal levels are abstract and broad in how they relate to other concepts. Its characteristics are global processing, broad attention, essence-oriented, and abstract concepts based on an overview. High construals are a hotspot for creative thinking.

High construals create a pathway to fetch creative ideas because the links between different ideas are more abstract & broad.

Here is a hierarchy:

  1. iPhone/Samsung
  2. Mobile Phone
  3. Communication Device

Each level has a link to a different set of concepts. The nearest neighbors are often related or on the same plane.

If you say iPhone, Samsung, it’s easy to fetch OPPO or OnePlus.

If you say Mobile Phone, it’s easy to fetch Laptop, Computer, Charging cable

If you say Communication Device, it is easy to fetch Medical devices, Electronics, Talking, etc. These examples seem unrelated but they are, in fact, linked on some level.

Concepts across construal levels are linked and become an example of different categories. In this hierarchy, the topmost level (lowest construal), is an example of specific details. The lowest level (highest construal) is about 2 different categories – communication & device. This is a key component of creative cognition – the ability to process concepts at various levels and selectively choose the details that matter.


Examples of ways to look at information from a construal level perspective

Low Construal LevelHigh Construal level
I am going out to play football with Megatron, Kung Fury, and One-Punch Man.I am going out to play sports
I am listening to Taylor Swift’s newest song on SpotifyI am listening to music
My boss has given me the task of generating 4 proper leads this month.I have work to do
A scenery painting with visual clarityA vague abstract painting
MusicNoise
Thinking about your present selfThinking about your future self
Recalling details of an eventRecalling a surface layer impression of an event
Thinking about the activities needed to realize your goalsThinking about the goals

Reminder: A high construal is more abstract & vague. A low construal is specific and detailed.

Every object, sensation, idea, and experience can be processed at multiple levels called the construal levels. Each level explains the object with a level of specificity. Calling your phone an iPhone is very specific, calling it a communication device is less specific. A car can be a glorious gray triangle or it can be a curvy, finely designed mode of transportation. A single concept can be defined with a combination of construals. From space, the earth is a large sphere. From your toilet, it is a location that contains your toilet.

Changing construals change your perception by changing your sensitivity to information. From up close, you can look at the earth and see all the buildings, people, pigeons, mountains, oceans, etc. which have various shapes, skylines, sounds, textures, colors, etc. From far away, the entire Earth is just a smudge in space, almost indistinguishable from other planets and stars.

An example of creative abstraction by using different construal levels - creative thinking hacks
An example of creative/abstract thinking by traveling construal levels

Humans can mentally manipulate construals which entail different perspectives, sensitivity to information, level of details, etc. This approach can help us in identifying unique patterns – a high-level cognitive skill.

So far, we’ve looked at creative thinking based on examples and features of a concept. Specifically, examples of a “construal” – level of understanding & processing. By taking an idea like a mobile phone, which is an example of a communication device, we traveled through multiple construals to link to other concepts and examples like computers, charging cable, radios, etc. But, there is a lot more to this. People think in different ways and some may be predisposed to look at things from a specific construal level – that is, some people will think of their iPhone as an iPhone, and some will think of it as their computing/communication device by default.

In cognitive psychology, there are 2 popular ways to characterize thinking styles – analytical and holistic. Analytical thinking focuses on details (low construal) and holistic thinking focuses on the essence and big picture. People may be biased toward one of these in certain contexts.

Some of us think of other people doing something we genuinely dislike like as “He put me in a bad mood” vs. “He said we need to….. and then we quarreled about…… and I said… and he shouted calling me a …… and then he guilted me…..” This is a classic example of processing an emotional event at 2 different construals or with 2 different thinking styles. By now you’d know which is which.

One related insight into creative thinking comes from a study that examined the relationship between learning through examples and thinking styles. In a study on creative performance, learning examples before a task was beneficial for those with an analytical thinking style but not for those with a holistic thinking style. This is partly explained by how analytical thinking can allow fixating on certain examples and exposure to more examples can increase the construal level to a more abstract level – a level conducive to creative thinking. For those with a holistic thinking style, examples might ground their thinking at a lower construal preventing abstract, broad, and seemingly odd mental connections.

Tip: To be creative: when you are analytical, think of higher construal examples. When you are holistic, don’t because it’ll hamper your creativity.


How you process and form concepts is your way. You can make jumps between ideas by traveling the construal level spectrum. Abstract links appear creative and concrete links appear obvious. Quite often, abstract thinking is about processing information at a high construal.

Now, let’s get to the neural organization. Neurons all over the brain are responsible for memory. However, a single memory has parts of it represented in different areas. All of them come together to represent an idea or memory. Because contexts and informational relationships are important, their representative neurons form attachments with other neurons. This network is pretty rich but access to the whole network is not easy and maybe beyond conscious control.

Traveling across the construal level helps in accessing a larger portion of the whole network. It lets you enter a new focal point in the network and fetch related ideas. This is a combination of parallel feedback- & feedforward-based processes. Jumping construals can reveal links to new ideas which can further make it easier to activate neural representations in a different context. The network allows information to travel and traveling information allows “creative jumps” in thinking.

The network of ideas is virtually infinite – A typical neuron connects to 10,000 other neurons and a typical idea connects to insert a random high number of ideas. You get to actively increase the connectivity by using your attention to travel between ideas and form relationships. So it is a layer of neural webs embedded with another layer of mental webs. It isn’t necessarily a 1 to 1 relationship between the 2 webs.

We don’t know enough about memory and neural representations yet. Things that complicate the issue are – memory can be stored across the brain in surprising ways, blocked/inhibited neurons can break a concept and even make it hard to remember, etc. Emotions can do this too, mood can affect how the network of information is accessed. It’s not easy to pin-point how these factors affect deliberate creative thinking but they give us some limitations.

An idea can be influenced by random sensory noise and random neural activity… and that can fuel a though process. This is an example of how ideas just click. Activities like spacing out from work facilitate such clicks. The brain’s default mode network (a network of brain regions that allow mind-wandering) plays a role in ideas clicking. The default mode network lets us make quicker and random jumps even when we aren’t truly aware of those jumps.

This is a crude framework that explains some types of creative thinking. Especially the deliberate & improvised creativity.

Learning and practice (basically repetition) often create robust and efficient neural circuits. These are easier to travel across so sometimes your practice and experience can prevent creative thinking. Specifically, practicing a well-defined process automates the process, creates a default tendency to use that process, and block other competing processes. This is a common problem for “experts” where their experience makes them un-creative and rigid in solving a problem – even though they are the best at solving it, they fail to solve related and novel problems. Their neurons default to their most optimized pathway blocking all other possible pathways. There is a word for it – the Einstellung effect.

Traveling across neural circuits and construals is influenced by a number of factors: background noise, the difficulty of processing, recent and past experiences, previous trains of thought, existing information in your environment, choice of words used to describe, probability, failure to send neural signals, types of neurochemicals which are dominating a circuit, etc.


So in summary, the creativity hack in making unique connections is to travel across construal levels to find and fetch information at different levels – abstract thinking. These levels open doorways to other information that would’ve seemed unrelated at first but is uniquely related via a different level of processing.


Psychological distance and creativity

The story doesn’t end here. We have only looked at construal levels based on how information is processed at different conceptual levels. There is an overarching aspect to construal levels – the function of distance. The more figurative “distance” there is between 2 points, the higher the construal. The construal level theory of psychological distance posits that when the figurative distance between you and what you are thinking about or perceiving increases, you tend to focus on the bigger picture. The closer you get or the more you zoom-in, the more you focus on the details – like standing next to a bunch of trees and then moving away till all you see is a forest or a bunch of trees as a green smudge in concrete.

This figurative distance is psychological, spatial, temporal, personal, or informational. However, they are often clubbed together as psychological distance even though each category is different.

So far, we’ve only looked at the informational distance.

One example of psychological distance is how talking in the 3rd person about your own anxiety can reduce anxiety. Instead of saying “I’m am tense and the date is going to suck,” saying “Aditya/he is tense and his date will suck” lowers the emotional weight. High construals lower emotional weight. The word “I” is specific and closer to your “self,” making it low construal & specific. The word “he” or “Aditya” adds psychological distance.

Temporal distance is the reason why people say “time will heal and time will make things easy to deal with.” When you look back, it feels like that was true. Events from the past begin to lose their emotional weight. That’s also why we end up thinking of amazing comebacks and witty remarks long after the moment goes away. The temporal distance helps us create this creative insight. The French have a word for it – L’esprit de l’escalier. The typical ‘Aha moment’ of creativity may be a function of temporal distance where the brain carries on unconscious processes (incubation) at a very high construal level and present the conscious brain with a brilliant solution.

An example of spatial distance is changing the perceived location of a problem. In one study, researchers asked participants to solve a few narration based problems which demanded creative solutions. The researchers manipulated spatial distance by telling some participants that they were gathering data for a nearby university (3.2km away) or a faraway university (3200km away). Participants who were “gathering data” for the faraway university produced significantly more creative solutions. Even changing the distance perspective before a task can help children be more original and unique.

Personal distance is interesting as well. Research shows that humans tend to be more creative in solving problems for other people than for themselves. The concept of self is closer to yourself than it is to other people. Thinking for other people tends to increase the construal level and perhaps deter personal/emotional barriers to creativity.

This problem is well demonstrated by people who feel they give excellent advice but can’t seem to implement it for themselves.

Another nuanced angle to the construal level theory is difficulty in processing information. Very similar to the cognitive load theory. We’ve looked at the psychological distance perspective but that’s a very simple way to understand it. Construal levels are themselves abstract. The irony isn’t lost in theory, maybe just harder to process*

*I chuckled a lot while writing that sentence.

From an information processing point of view, moderate intensity of background noise (70db) is a sweet spot for creative cognition because it increases the construal level. This noise is just enough to create a mild distraction that forces a distance in the very processing of thoughts. Higher noise levels like 85db raise the construal too but it is too much to allow smooth processing, effectively reducing the quality of processing. Researchers propose that background noise has an inverted ‘U’ relationship with creativity where low noise doesn’t improve creativity, moderate noise improves creativity, and high noise reduces creativity. Background music can, in fact, improve creativity for many classes of work.

Finally, let’s discuss the role of mood in creative thinking. Research shows that a generally positive and relaxed mood helps in broadening memory networks and avails more resources. Specifically, a good mood, moderate stimulation of the senses (arousal), and relaxation help the brain toggle between 2 modes – each mode creates a bias toward different construal levels. This phenomenon can be hijacked to promote creativity during road-blocks.


TFL; DR:

Creative thinking isn’t magic and people can do it deliberately on-demand by using the construal level theory. The theory conceptualizes thinking in terms of “distance” and “levels of processing.” An idea can be construed at different levels and each level has unique links to other concepts in the mind & brain. Traveling through construal levels allows us to become aware of these links and think creatively. High construals are abstract in nature and facilitate creative jumps. Low construals are concrete and hamper creative jumps.

Other related findings suggest that changing the psychological distance, temporal distance, spatial distance, mood, and information processing difficulty can affect creativity.


P.S. Measuring creativity often includes measuring performance on tasks. Sometimes, researchers measure the uniqueness of a story, the likelihood of unlikely but valid solutions, self-reports, insight into a problem, explanations for hypothetical scenarios, divergent and convergent thinking tasks, the quantity and validity of examples one can generate for a category, the ability to utilize resources in unique ways, deviation from typical responses, etc.

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