College of Liberal Arts

Abstract Thinking Helps Make Sense of the World with Some Setbacks, Researchers Find

Mon, Jan 13, 2020
To make sense of seemingly inexplicable events, abstract thinking seeks out underlying meaning or overarching themes.
To make sense of seemingly inexplicable events, abstract thinking seeks out underlying meaning or overarching themes.

In the aftermath of a mass shooting, people scramble for answers, drawing on commonalities from earlier tragedies to make sense of things. While this may help simplify complex issues and relieve psychological tensions, it may create a false sense of understanding and further polarize individuals’ viewpoints, according to psychology researchers.

The need to understand why things happen — reducing “causal uncertainty” — is a powerful psychological motivator, promoting cognitive processes that help make the world seem more controllable or predictable. Some of these processes are intentional, systematic efforts, aimed at achieving a more accurate causal understanding. But others are spontaneous and automatic, producing abstract thoughts to help simplify complex problems.

A new study by researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno and The University of Texas at Austin, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, focused on the latter.

“Abstract thinking has been shown to have positive as well as negative effects,” said Marlone Henderson, associate psychology professor at UT Austin and the study’s co-author. “On one hand, abstraction has been shown to help people deal with mood problems and facilitate cooperative problem solving. On the other, it promotes bias.” 

To make sense of seemingly inexplicable events, abstract thinking seeks out underlying meaning or overarching themes. “It may take the form of focusing on similarities across events or explaining behaviors with traits or higher-level goals,” said Jae-Eun Namkoong, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Nevada and the study’s co-author. 

Past research suggests abstract thinking happens spontaneously and outside of awareness, as a natural motivation response to causal uncertainty that helps achieve a sense of understanding.

“It’s possible that abstract thinking makes causal understanding seem less overwhelming, which might then make individuals more psychologically prepared to systematically break down a problem,” said Henderson.

This could be a good thing, considering the negative behaviors causal uncertainty has been associated with, such as neuroticism, anxiety and depression, as well as alcohol use. The researchers suggested future research could examine abstract thinking as a “defense or coping mechanism,” since it may provide psychological distance from a traumatic event and reduce the intensity of emotional reactions.

In a prior study, Namkoong and Henderson found that during times of widespread causal uncertainty, people responded more positively when messages from leaders used more abstract language, rather than those that focused on concrete details. They warn that while this automatic, abstract response may help people better digest complex issues, it could oversimplify an issue or “tease” people into thinking they know better about why something happened without actually gaining any additional information, though researchers said more research is needed in this area.

“A simplified causal explanation would mean a greater conviction in a smaller number of potential causes,” Namkoong said. “This can lead individuals to become more single-minded and perhaps even more extreme in their beliefs, discounting information that rejects one’s own causal beliefs, or ignoring nuances and complexity surrounding the causes behind events.”

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