The role of abstract construals in increasing public support for addressing local injustice

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Neufeld, Katelin Helene
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Resistance to rectifying local injustice and methods of addressing such resistance are often studied in terms of motivational barriers (e.g., system justification, Jost & Banaji, 2004). I propose that a cognitive mechanism called construal level may also play an important role. Construal level refers to whether people are thinking concretely or abstractly. For example, if considering the act of locking a door, one might construe the behavior as putting a key in a lock (a concrete construal) or as securing a house (an abstract construal). Construal level theory (Liberman & Trope, 1998) states that people think concretely about near events and thinking concretely makes people more concerned about feasibility (e.g., “Is it affordable?”), whereas thinking abstractly makes people more concerned about morality (Eyal, Liberman, & Trope, 2008). Thus, inducing abstract thinking might increase support for addressing local injustice. I assessed this novel proposal in two experimental studies that focused on the lack of adequate water services in First Nations and included measures of social action as dependent variables. In Study 1 (n = 151 White Canadian undergraduates; 44% women), participants thought about either a local or distant injustice. I hypothesized participants would support the local injustice less as they would think more concretely and thus be more concerned with feasibility and less concerned with morality; no differences emerged (p’s > .36, d’s < .15). In Study 2 (n = 166 White Canadian undergraduates; 66% women), I directly manipulated construal level and had all participants consider a local injustice. People led to think abstractly (vs. concretely) were more supportive of addressing injustice because they were more morally outraged, experienced more empathy, and thought the problem was easier to solve, 95% CI = [0.22, 0.98]. Thus, the results suggest that induced abstract thinking may be an effective tool for achieving local social change.
construal level theory, First Nations, social action, water