Thinking Toys #3 — Construal Levels

Have you been feeling a lack of direction, purpose, or a sense of progress? Try asking yourself “Why?”. Why are you doing what you are doing, what does it accomplish? And then ask “Why?” again about that, and another time or two if you can.

Why am I working as a dog walker? Dogs need to be walked but their owners are busy.

Why? They have other demands on their time but still love their dog.

Why? Their dog brings joy to their lives.

By walking the dog, I am bringing joy to the lives of the owners and the dogs.

Similarly, you can try extracting abstractions or patterns. Every day you come into work and do a little bit of meaningless labor. Large accomplishments require time and coordination among many people. Sometimes the outcomes are things everyone can point to, like a skyscraper. Other times they may be more subtle, like saving a few extra lives per year with a new automobile safety feature. The pattern in these undertakings is the cooperation of many specialized humans working on little bits at a time.

Alternatively, you may be experiencing a sense of disconnection from the world. You may feel stuck, disembodied, lacking flow, or overwhelmed by repetitive mental chatter. Try asking yourself “How?”. Go deeper into the details of implementation and feasibility.

I want to save the world. How?

I need to find the threats and stop them. How?

Research potential threats and interventions. How?

I can Google “existential risks”


The mindset we bring to perceiving and interpreting the world is our construal level. High construal corresponds with more abstract thinking. Low construal is more about concrete thinking. Asking “Why?” recursively, or seeking abstraction and pattern, raises our construal level. Asking “How?” recursively, or seeking detail and difference, lowers our construal level. Being aware of our ability to manipulate construal level is huge. Learning to play with going up and down in construal helps us engage with the world more skillfully.


Higher construal reduces our susceptibility to impulse while reducing engagement with environmental cues and the present moment. Going up gives us more top-down control — rational regulation. But it also risks leaving us disengaged from experience and external feedback. When you think about the future, you are in high construal “far-mode” thinking. Notice how everything feels more abstract and conceptual. Far-mode enables greater risk taking and makes big challenges feel more surmountable. But it can obscure details that may be important to know in advance. Engaging near-mode (low construal) can reveal these.

There’s no objectively optimal or correct level. The world is an inseparable mix of pattern and nebulosity. The easier we can switch between these perspectives, the more fluidly we engage with the world. The worst feelings seem to come when we are stuck seeing the world as only one of these. Below is a table of some triggering feelings and which way to shift construal to better engage with them.

This whole analysis is pretty high construal! What would be a low construal approach?

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Also published on Medium.

3 thoughts on “Thinking Toys #3 — Construal Levels

  1. Gary,

    I wanted to let you know that I read everyone of your posts and your thinking is so clear and on point. Thanks for putting this out there. I don’t know many people that are as articulate and accurate on how the mind works as you.


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