15 abstraction and global-local processing running head: abstraction and global-local processing on the role of abstraction in
Abstraction and Global-Local Processing
RUNNING HEAD: ABSTRACTION AND GLOBAL-LOCAL PROCESSING
On the Role of Abstraction in Global and Local Processing Phenomena
Katherine M. Darwent
The Ohio State University
The Ohio State University
Cheryl J. Wakslak
University of Southern California
In their target article, Förster and Dannenberg (this issue) review
empirical findings from diverse lines of research that highlight the
importance of understanding global and local processing differences in
psychology. Importantly, the authors then attempt to integrate these
findings under a unitary theoretical framework. We are excited to see
Förster and Dannenberg draw much needed attention to the distinction
between global and local processing. Although conceptual frameworks
such as action identification theory (Vallacher & Wegner, 1987), the
linguistic category model (Semin & Fiedler, 1988), and construal level
theory (Trope & Liberman, 2003) have discussed related constructs, to
our knowledge this is the first comprehensive review of global and
local processing phenomena, specifically. Förster and Dannenberg
describe an impressive array of findings that connect these two modes
or types of processing to important outcomes and triggers, and also
review provocative research suggesting a relationship between
perceptual and conceptual global and local processing.
As with all innovative advances, this work raises a number of
questions. In what follows, we highlight several such questions that
we see as central to understanding the basic principles of GLOMOsys.
Given the potential of GLOMOsys as an integrative framework, we hope
that the subsequent discussion serves as a starting point for further
endeavors to refine and advance Förster and Dannenberg’s model, which
we believe to be an ambitious and important approach toward
understanding the widely relevant distinction between local and global
To What Do Global and Local Processing Refer?
An impressive aspect of the target article is how the authors are able
to discuss research in disparate domains, which include perception,
cognition, judgment, motivation and self-regulation, all under the
same conceptual framework, namely the distinction between global and
local processing. Using this distinction, the authors draw connections
between areas that generally do not speak to one another, and we can
only hope that this work will serve as a bridge to facilitate greater
cross-talk between traditionally separate sub-disciplines in our
field. At the same time as we are excited by this remarkable breadth,
however, we have also found ourselves searching for greater precision
in Förster and Dannenberg’s explication of their central concepts of
global and local processing. Their description of the distinction
between global and local processing seems to point to a difference in
processing scope or breadth. People engage in global processing when
they “zoom out and pay attention to [the] entire figure” or “attend to
the Gestalt of a stimulus set,” whereas local processing involves
attending to details. This visual attention metaphor of scope and
breadth has descriptive merits, and may be particularly appropriate in
this case since, as Forster and Dannenberg detail, perceptual global
and local processing and conceptual global and local processing appear
to be related to one another.
Nevertheless, it remains unclear to us why perceptual and conceptual
global and local processing appear to be so intertwined. More
specifically, what cognitive procedures promote this apparent
association? Much of the empirical evidence supporting the association
between perceptual and conceptual global and local processing relies
on two classic paradigms: the Navon (1977) letter task and the Kimchi
& Palmer (1982) figures task. These tasks respectively present
participants with compound letters (larger letters made up of smaller
letters) or shapes (larger shapes made up of smaller shapes).
Perceptual global processing is elicited by instructing individuals to
attend to the global stimulus (the large letter/shape), while
perceptual local processing is elicited by instructing individuals to
attend to the details of the stimulus (the small letters/shapes).
Note, however, that it is not fully clear what cognitive operations
these instructions elicit (for more extensive discussion of this
issue, see Kimchi, 1992). For example, attending to the global shape
might increase the scope or breadth of one’s attention. That is,
focusing on the larger letter in the Navon letter task requires a
wider scope of visual attention than seeing the smaller letter; one
needs to attend more to the periphery of the computer screen to
process the more global letter presented. The global processing
instructions, however, might equally elicit a conceptual process by
which people understand that they are to create broader elements from
smaller elements, that they are to focus on the whole and not the
constituent elements. Local processing, by contrast, requires a
conceptual understanding that the global configuration of letters is
irrelevant and that one’s task is to respond to the local constituent
parts. That is, although the Navon and Kimchi tasks use visual
stimuli, it seems plausible that instructions to focus on global/local
elements are interpreted as conceptual rules (e.g., “Focus on the “big
picture” vs. “focus on the details”).
To illustrate this point, consider the following thought experiments.
One might imagine constructing a task with the intention of solely
measuring or manipulating one’s breadth of attention. Instead of
seeing larger letters composed of smaller letters as they do in the
Navon letter task, participants would simply see a single very small
vs. very large letter in the center of the screen. Processing the
larger letter should require enlarged scope of visual attention.
Alternatively, one could present participants with letters of an equal
size either in the center vs. peripheral edges of the screen. To
process the letters at the edge of the screen, one would need to
increase breadth of visual attention. These two tasks still require
the “zooming out” and “zooming in” processes that Förster and
Dannenberg suggest are part of global and local processing,
respectively. At the same time, however, these two tasks de-couple the
two potential mechanisms for the global vs. local processing
phenomenon evident in the Navon and Kimchi-Palmer tasks. Specifically,
these proposed tasks would manipulate the breadth of one’s visual
attention while controlling for the breadth of one’s conceptual
processing (for more extensive discussion of the confounding of these
two constructs, see Navon & Norman, 1983; Kimchi, 1992). Examining
whether such tasks would influence conceptual global and local
processing, or whether this link would be confined to perceptual
manipulations that entail a conceptual element, might allow
investigators to detail with greater precision the relationship
between perceptual and conceptual scope.
What does it mean, however, to process information in a conceptually
global manner? In describing global processing as focusing on the
Gestalt of an object, Förster and Dannenberg appear to suggest that
conceptual global processing entails extracting or imposing conceptual
structure on incoming information. This is consistent with our
understanding of conceptual global processing as abstraction, i.e. as
reflecting a construal or meaning-making process whereby people
distill the essence or gist of some stimulus. Conceptual local
processing, in contrast, reflects a construal process whereby people
discern those specific features of a stimulus that render it unique or
distinct from some broader context. Conceptual global processing can
thus be understood as a construal or meaning-making process whereby
people extract abstract essences from and impose schematic structures
on incoming information, whereas local processing is a construal
process whereby they focus on those concrete characteristics and
details that distinguish one stimulus from another. Said differently,
whereas global conceptual processing entails abstract construal, local
conceptual processing entails concrete construal.
Indeed, a stronger distinction between perceptual vs. conceptual
global and local processing might be accomplished by referring to the
former as breadth of attention (wide vs. narrow) and the latter as
level of construal (abstract vs. concrete). We believe these terms
better clarify those cognitive operations that are entailed in each
form of global and local processing. We are, however, completely open
to the suggestion that breadth of attention can affect level of
construal, and that level of construal can affect attention. In the
Navon letter task, for example, construing more abstractly a
configuration of smaller letters as a larger letter may promote
widening of one’s visual attention. Wider visual attention, in turn,
might more readily elicit abstract construals. Our point is that
understanding specifically how breadth of attention might impact level
of construal and vice-versa may allow us to understand with greater
precision the research findings that the authors highlight. More
generally, specifying more clearly what is meant by the terms global
and local processing might promote an even more enriched understanding
of the remarkable literature that Förster and Dannenberg review.
Do Global and Local Processing Reflect Two Systems, Two Processes, or
Förster and Dannenberg’s exposition of global and local processing is
somewhat unclear with respect to the nature of interaction, if any,
between the two styles or modes of processing. We are unsure whether
they intend the distinction to represent independent constructs or
ends of a continuum. On the one hand, the authors call their model
“GLOMOsys” and explicitly propose the existence of two systems. They
further suggest that there is preliminary neurophysiological data
suggesting the existence of two brain systems dedicated to the two
types of processes. On the other hand, Förster and Dannenberg might
not intend their theorizing about the existence of two systems to be
taken quite as literally as other dual-systems theories in psychology.
Dual-systems models postulate the existence of different substrates
that process different types of information (e.g., Keren & Schul,
2009). As a result of these two systems, dual-systems models propose
that two separate representations of a stimulus can co-exist (e.g.
Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Schacter & Tulving, 1994; Wilson, Lindsey, &
Schooler, 2000). We doubt that Förster and Dannenberg mean to make
such claims with respect to global and local processing; indeed, they
explicitly state that they believe that when one system gets
activated, the other one is de-activated, a claim that is at odds with
the use of the term “system” (note, however, that others have
suggested that parallel global and local processing is a theoretical
possibility; Navon, 1981).
Rather than reflect a dual-systems model, the authors instead appear
to espouse a dual-process or continuum model. Note that whereas a dual
process explanation would allow for both global and local processing
to occur at the same time (e.g., Chaiken & Trope, 1999), a continuum
model would not. The authors’ suggestion that global and local
processing cannot co-occur thus seems most consistent with a continuum
model. Intriguingly, however, the authors’ theorizing at times appears
to suggest a third option: a duality, in which one or the other type
of processing (but never both) is activated at any one time. Rather
than reflect relative differences in the amount of global (vs. local)
processing, this duality perspective suggests a more categorical
distinction: one is engaged in either global or local processing. It
is not entirely apparent, though, to what extent the authors intend
for this conclusion to be made.
Although the appropriateness of the term “systems” may seem to simply
be a semantic issue, it is important to appreciate that this term is
highly specific and carries theoretical assumptions that we would
imagine Förster and Dannenberg would consider inappropriate for their
conceptualizations of global and local processing. Indeed, considering
whether GLOMOsys is best termed a dual-systems model, dual-process
model, continuum model or some other alternative might help to bring
greater conceptual clarity to the authors’ position about the
nature,of these two processing styles.
What is the Glue that Binds Global and Local Processing Phenomena?
The impressive and diverse number of empirical findings related to
global and local processing that Förster and Dannenberg enumerate begs
for a conceptual framework with which to unify the various streams of
research systematically. To this end, Förster and Dannenberg attempt
to find an “umbrella” factor under which the different precursors of
global and local processing might be integrated. They review several
possibilities, including regulatory focus, psychological distance, and
novelty, and assess to what degree each accounts for the available
data. Ultimately, they favor novelty, seemingly because a link between
culture and processing style can be accommodated into a novelty
framework more easily than the other two candidates, making novelty
the widest potential umbrella.
We have a number of concerns with this approach. First, as researchers
whose own focus is on distance, we feel obliged to point out the close
connection between novelty and the concept of uncertainty, which has
been explicitly discussed as distance (Wakslak, Trope, Liberman, and
Alony, 2006; Wakslak & Trope, 2009a) and incorporated into Construal
Level Theory’s distance framework (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Moreover,
we caution that Forster and Dannenberg’s list of factors that impact
global and local processing is not an exhaustive list; ongoing and
future work will undoubtedly reveal more variables that impact global
and local processing. Especially given the recent resurgence of
interest in this topic (prompted, in no small part, by these authors’
own impressive research program), comparing “umbrella” candidates on
the basis of the number of current research findings that they might
accommodate feels somewhat shortsighted. As an example, in some of our
own recent work we find that self-affirmation (focusing on important
values) increases performance on tasks associated with global
processing rather than tasks associated with local processing (Wakslak
& Trope, 2009b). It is unclear what focusing on one’s own values would
have to do with novelty; if anything, focusing on other people’s
values (which we find is associated with local processing) should be
the more novel case. Our point is not that this rules out the
usefulness of a novelty framework for exploring many global and local
processing effects, but rather that this highlights the limitation of
comparing the merit of potential explanatory factors simply on the
basis of the number of other research findings that these factors can
At a broader level, though, we wonder if, rather than search for a
single common cause of global and local processing, it may be more
fruitful to assume that these processing styles serve a variety of
functional concerns, and that what binds all of these phenomena
together is that they engage the same cognitive procedures. In other
words, we need not assume that the same cognitive procedure
necessarily serves the same purpose. In fact, it might be considered
quite cognitively (and conceptually) parsimonious if global and local
processing were multi-final, capable of serving different functions in
different situations. That is, having a single process accomplish a
multitude of ends is more cognitively parsimonious that having a
unique process for every functional concern that we might have. What
may link the various global and local processing phenomena together
may not be a single common functional concern such as processing
novelty or transcending psychological distances; instead, what may
bind them is that they all entail differences in level of construal.
Indeed, Förster and Dannenberg’s effort to find a common motive with
which to integrate the various global and local processing phenomena
may have caused them to overlook important differences in the motives
that researchers propose are served by these processes. For example,
novelty categorization theory and construal level theory each
emphasize the role of lack of information, but do so in quite
different ways. Novelty categorization theory proposes that when
encountering something novel, people engage in processes that render
them more open- and broad-minded (Förster and Dannenberg, this issue).
In doing so, people are in a better position to perceive and encode
important new information about the novel object or event. The
epistemic motive that global processing in novelty categorization
theory serves is thus one concerned about information search and
exposure. Construal level theory, in contrast, proposes that people
construe more abstractly because they lack the information with which
to think about more distal vs. proximal events (e.g., Liberman &
Trope, 2008; Liberman, Trope, & Stephan, 2007; Trope & Liberman, 2003;
2010; Trope, Liberman, & Wasklak, 2007). Lacking specific information
about distant events, people rely on abstract construals to focus on
what they perceive to be the invariances of a particular event – those
features that are likely to be true of the event irrespective of any
specific contextual details. Construal level theory thus proposes that
people rely on more abstract construals not out of a desire to search
for more information, but rather out of a desire to use what limited
information they have to make appropriate judgments and decisions.
On an empirical level, a number of research findings seem to support
this conjecture that global and local processing phenomena serve a
variety of functional concerns. In addition to the research on
self-affirmation and abstract construals discussed already (Wakslak &
Trope, 2009b), research on the intergroup linguistic bias has
demonstrated that more global or abstract construal can serve social
identity concerns (Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, & Semin, 1989). When their
esteem for their in-group is threatened, people construe positive
behaviors by in-group members, and negative behaviors by out-group
members, more globally or abstractly. Doing so results in perceptions
that one’s in-group possesses stable positive dispositional qualities,
whereas the out-group possesses stable negative dispositional
qualities (Maass, Ceccarelli, & Rudin, 1996). Note here that this
abstract construal of positive behaviors by one’s in-group involves
neither novelty nor psychological distance nor regulatory focus – this
biased judgment is motivated by a desire to maintain positive esteem
toward one’s valued social groups.
Research also suggests that abstract construal can serve
goal-protection motives (e.g., Fujita & Han, 2009; Fujita, Trope,
Liberman, & Levin-Sagi, 2006; Mischel & Baker, 1975; Moore, Mischel, &
Zeiss, 1976; see also Myrseth & Fishbach, 2009). People are frequently
tempted to abandon more valued global goals in favor of salient
temptations in their local contexts. The presence of chocolate cake,
for example, tempts dieters to abandon their weight-loss goals.
Empirical findings indicate that construing these events more globally
or abstractly promotes greater goal adherence. Indeed, the mere
anticipated threat of a temptation is enough to motivate people to
construe impending events more abstractly (Fujita & MacGregor, 2010).
Again, abstract construal in this research is not motivated by
novelty, psychological distance, nor regulatory focus – this change in
construal is prompted by a desire to protect one’s goals from being
undermined by local situational factors.
There are thus theoretical and empirical reasons for proposing that
rather than reflecting some common factor (such as novelty,
psychological distance, or regulatory focus) or motive (such as
epistemic motivation), global and local processing phenomena reveal
very different functional concerns depending on the context in which
they are observed. We propose that the diversity of global and local
processing phenomena can be understood as revealing shared, common
cognitive procedures. As noted above, we believe that an integrating
principle that binds global and local processing phenomena is that
they all involve differences in level of construal. That global and
local processing phenomena are evident in so many diverse phenomena
may reflect the diversity of psychological functions that abstract and
concrete construals fulfill.
Summary and Conclusions
We believe that Förster and Dannenberg’s target article represents an
important and bold first step toward understanding the antecedents and
consequences of global and local processing. We are encouraged by the
wide array of findings that they describe, and impressed at their
ambitious attempt to reconcile these disparate findings into an
overarching framework. Like all innovative work, however, their review
raises a number of questions. We highlight these in the spirit of
academic dialogue, and we hope that any ensuing debate leads to
continued empirical investigation and an even stronger theoretical
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