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Phin Upham – What is the World?
How do we organize and understand the world around us? In this review of seminal scholarship on the subject Phin Upham reviews some of the major theories and integrates their conclusions.
Construal, the sense in which we organize our world around facts rather than facts organizing the world for us, is a crucial concept in psychology, and, in a related way, sociology. It highlights the sense in which our world is created through our own sense-making mechanisms and undermines the idea that we are objective or see the world the way all others see it. It can either cause us to throw our hands us in the air in despair over the seeming lack of coherence (or, more specifically, the lack of necessary coherence, in the world) or it can cause us to look in wonder at the human animal an its variations, complexities, and perspectives. Ultimately, construal is a necessary thing – meaning is not intrinsic but created from a frame of reference, interpretation is not absolute but relative. Construal is a process that moderates between the useful, the truthful, and the environment in order to help sense-make (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse) for an individual.
Psychologists Ross and Nisbett argue that we interpret and construct the world in a dynamic way, based on the perceptions and influences of our social surroundings, situational factors, and personality characteristics. They then claim that we are overly unaware that we are only seeing one way to interpret the world. “This lack of awareness of our own construal processes blinds us to the possibility that someone else, differently situated, might construe the same objects in a different way… People sometimes construe the same object differently because they view it from different angles rather than because they are fundamentally different people…. The divergence [exhibited in the Asch experiments] may reflect differences not in the “judgment of the object” but in the construal of just what “the object of judgment” is.” (p82). We make the false assumption that we see it as it is rather than as we interpret it. It is not clear here whether the differences in individual interpretations of the worlds are due only to different external factors (social, environmental, etc) or also to different processing factors (i.e. the mental and physical machines with which we process this information).
Ross and Nisbett also argue that our perceptions of ourselves and our casual attributions for our actions are not in fact construed in a complete or correct. That is, we are not born tabla rasa, we do not consistently build basic beliefs, and we cannot predict or control the way we will act. Psychologists and Sociologists read for this class provide support for this through numerous studies that show a basically consistent, unpredicted, and unsystematic patterns of behavior. The authors begin by breaking down the idea that our opinions or reactions are as independent and systematic as we may believe. Sherif’s “autokinetic” study and the Ash Paradigm study illustrate that we often act differently when in groups (with group norms, pressure, bias, and social factors). We conform to group pressure (Ash), or, even more extremely, shift our perceptions in order to align ourselves with a group (Sherrif). The Bennington studies, which show how our beliefs about the world are deeply and irreversibly influenced by our social surroundings, illustrate that this effect is not trivial or isolated but instead can have far-reaching and self-defining consequences.
Sherif’s later studies on group dynamics similarly suggests that our world perceptions (us vs. them, me vs. you, good vs. bad) can be construed arbitrarily. Chapter three expands on this point with a social slant: Our world is constructed in a social setting and so the opinions of others and the judgments of others play a dynamic part in this construction. I.e., our world is not necessarily “warped” by others opinions but others opinions actually play a role in determining what our world looks like. The “attribution theory of emotion” and the Nisbett and Wilson (1977) cognitive process blindness theory take this one step further claiming that we do not really see the world as we think we do at all.
Ross and Nisbett do not explicitly state what I see as a major consequence, and synthesis, of both their chapters and much of the literature. But perhaps this is because I do not have and have not read their later chapters. With this caveat, Ross and Nisbett (1) begin by attempting to prove that our world is to an extent an arbitrary construction. They continue (2) by showing that it is important to us that out world be in line with others in our group or reference set (social pressure) and they end (3) with the interesting claim that we misunderstand the world in a fundamental way (with mistakes in traits, etc). To me there is a clear logical step that stands between their points (1) and (2). That (1.5) that we are, on some deep unconscious level, insecure and unsure of the ontological nature of the world and thus need to constantly adjust our view of it depending on the situation and context (see they do not take William James’ point on p. 68 seriously enough) or align ourselves with others in order to attempt to interpret it in the best/most useful way.
Assume for a moment that there is no “correct” way to construe the world – and Ross and Nisbett I think would agree with this. Perhaps even the idea of a “correct” way to interpret the world is a non-sensical statement. All constructions are heuristics simplifications intrinsically since the world does not have, unlike our constructions of the world, imbedded causality only systematic temporal correlations. An interpretation is meant, therefore, to be useful in our world, which a deeply social and dynamic one. Why is it therefore surprising that we adjust, conform to, and closely monitor others opinions? If our interpretations are wrong, and we know they always are, there is no good reason to stick to them if they are not working. Our perception of length is clearly not functioning correctly if it derives an answer different from everyone else (since deriving an answer that is useful is our goal, not deriving an answer that is true and it is useful to have an agreed upon idea of length).
So the surprising thing is that we ever believe that we are objectively right about things, rather than that we accept that we construe them, or that we believe our views are “the way things are,” not that we adjust our world-views in the face of social, environmental, or situational pressure (and various evolutionary psychology arguments have attempted to explain this argument on the grounds of efficiency). I do not mean to make the facile claim that we should always give in to social pressure, that we should always tailor our views to match those around us, only that to explain a deviation from this behavior one need to apply to other reasons than one being “correct” or, even, more arguably, perhaps, “truth.” That our views are deeply inadequate and inefficient, as chapter four argues, is a much harsher claim leveled by Ross and Nisbett in this context.
The central tenants of construal are also interrelated to the ideas presented in the ideas presented on cognition, on the ideas included in research on the self and theories if identity, cognitive dissonance, and self-affirmation. These works in cognition compellingly present a view of models of self (both explicit and implicit) and their consequences (and presuppositions). Essentially it constitutes that we construe the world around us to mediate between the complexities and disappointments of the world and ourselves 1) a demonstration that we avoid the complexity of the world by employing simplifying “models” or heuristics and that these heuristics can be revealed by clever counter examples that reveal their inadequacies. 2) we employ similar self-models to view our own identity and to mediate and moderate our own behavior. And 3) that there are competing ideas of how this behavioral and self-models look.
There are puzzling difficulties, though. The question of attitudes and frameworks that define behavior is difficult not only because we are dynamic beings who are constantly changing and updating our behavior (though this evidence would claim that we do not update certain aspects and internal structures of ourselves) but also because it is likely that we are not internally consistent in our actions. It is entirely possible, as evolutionary psychologists Tooby and Cosmides argue, for example, that we are “Swiss-army knives” designed with heuristics for many different types of situations, which would present some problems with these hypothesis as presented.
Tversky and Kahneman argue that we use mental shortcuts, or ‘heuristics’ which are [generally] useful ways of organizing the world. There ‘heuristics’ can be shown to lead us to errors in many situations (because we construe, or see, the world differently than it is), but, it is assumed, they are efficient and generally accurate in life (though a more evolutionary claim would merely say they were accurate in the evolutionarily relevant EEA). Tversky and Kahneman believe that we use heuristics such as represetativeness, availability, and anchoring, to simplify the world around us. They are able to show that this simplifications can lead to mistakes in logic (under or overestimating the likely hood of events, for example) but they stop short of exploring why we might employ such tricks. They mention that these heuristics act to “simplify” the world and they describe the contexts in which we use each.
Markus argues that not only do we not view the world as it is, but we construe it in a particular and systematic way. He applies Tversky and Kahneman’s logic to the realm of self-perception. He claims that we not only do we use shortcuts to interpret and define the world as Tversky and Kahneman claimed, but we use shortcuts to define and interpret ourselves as well, he calls there internal mental models “self-schemata.” He designed a study in which he divides people into dependent, independent and aschematics and illustrates that dependents and independents, by having a model of self, are able to self-define more quickly, efficiently and to maintain a more robust and contextualized image of self. If facilitates the processing of social information. The unanswered question is whether these subjects are correct in their self-identification and how they came to these self-labels. If these labels are useful, and they need not be accurate, then the question, for me, becomes 1) is it more or less or equally useful to have an accurate label than an inaccurate label (or no label). 2) which label is the most useful and successful 3) how do we form/change such labels. In essence, he is asking how we can construe the world so that is it most useful to us (not so that it is more truthful). There is compelling evidence, for example, that people who have an inflated perception of their own abilities (as compared to the estimation of those around them) perform better than those with a realistic perception of their own abilities (this latter group is even sometimes depressed).
To illustrate, here are four seminal models of construal which helps us to understand how we function in the world. If the notion of construal is that we interpret to world around us and create meaning, then these readings are nicely understood to be serving this purpose. The sole exception to this view of endogenously useful construal processes is Bem who constructs a model that posits that construal is more exogenous than it appears. He argues that constructs a model he calls “self-perception theory” which essentially claims that our attitudes and behavior has less to do with private knowledge about ourselves than we think. We sometimes socially define how we ought to attribute and define the “feelings” (though what the nature of these internal feelings are never explored) we have, especially when they are weak and ambiguous – and there is evidence that is quite often. He generates a model of how such a theory might begin to develop as a child grows, demonstrates that people can be fooled into attributing feelings incorrectly if given false reasons for feeling the way they do and shows that irrelevant factors (such as light) can change the way one feels about a mental thought (the mental understanding of a cartoon). Finally the theory provides evidence that we can attribute to others the same biases we unconsciously use ourselves (via the toy experiment). This essay practically turns on its head the old theory that we understand ourselves and apply that understanding, with an “other minds” assumption to others – and says that the truth is instead, at least in part, the other way around.
This theory highlights the fact that construal theory is a result the mediation of three forces – personal usefulness, external validation, and moderating environmental factors. We want to view the world in such a way that it is useful to us, so that it makes sense. But a part of it making sense, given that we live I a social environment, is that it corresponds to others perceptions of it. Lastly, there seems to be a purely coincidental component to construal which Bem describes. Somehow, out view of the world emerges, defined by these three factors, into a unified and sense-making set concepts.
Aronson, Steele, and Staw provide more straightforward ways we can model (some of) our behavior. They argue that construal is not only unconscious, but also deeply history dependent (i.e. path dependent) on our emotional and psychological states and self-perceptions. This the concept of construal gives us a framework in which to place and connect these theories together, while simultaneously motivating them by proving a sense of the goal – consistent, useful as well as truthful psychological views of the world which allows to function healthily. Aronson explores the idea of cognitive dissonance which postulates that when we are in a state such that we have “dissonant” opinions in our mind or we are in “tension” with others, there is a desire to add “consonant” cognitions by changing one or both views so that they are complementary. This theory seems to explain a part of our thought processes but it falls short, as the authors recognize, of providing either a satisfying reason for this behavior nor providing a precise “how” component to our behavior. Steele explores the idea of self-affirmation, the idea that we often rationalize and interpret our surroundings in order to make it fit with our “theories of self.” So if we do something bad, we may do something good in another area entirely to “balance” this bad out and so maintain general equilibrium. This seems to be complementary to Dissonance theory (or the other way around) since it could be seen that the conflicting action is in dissonance with the general perception of self so we add a consonant factor (the countervailing act) to rectify this or we rationalize our action away. I think a synthesis of these two positions is possible. Lastly, Staw provides an “escalation to commitment” model in which we respond strongly to structural patterns such as past sunk resources. We do not always behave rationally when pursuing a course, but there are factors which can cause us to forge ahead even when logic tells us to cut our investment. Construal can, we see from Staw, warp out reality to such an extent that it is potentially harmful as well as helpful. Once we begin to construe the world, say by structuring our action in a certain way, this construal process can get off track and lead to us behaving in a way externally, or economically, “rational.” The very fact that construal provides internal logical and justification is very dangerous (as well, in other contexts, as helpful).
Construal in human behavior in organizations.
With the complexity of organizations, the level of social involvement, financial importance, and psychological value that one can place in organizations and our place in them, there is little wonder that how we can potentially construe them and our role in them as of high importance. Construal – in the sense of sense-making – is necessary and unavoidable (Lazarus’ arguments not withstanding) in our functioning in the world. Once role which construal takes in organizations is that it helps employees make sense of why they are working and what the purpose of their work is. I would argue that they can construe their work as being important and useful to the firm, that they can construe our place and motivation for working in the firm (this can be a positive or a negative construal). I am using construe here in the broad sense that Ross and Nizbett used it. We view the world from our own perspective and thus we see our won part of it as important. This may not be true from other perspectives. A person who’s job is irreverent in an organization may still construe that they are important because they are unwilling or unable to accept that there must be change (either in their job or in the organization). An individual can construe the other employees of the company as sharing an identity (and, in many case, people construe that others in the firm are similar to themselves) which gives them a common bond and a common set of values. Thus the first role of construal in organizations is as a sense-making tool and a tool to interpret the world and its relation to ourselves.
Individuals also often construe their motivations for working in the organization. They often do not see themselves as working there to make money (at east purely), even if that is why they took the job, rather cognitive dissonance theory helps us to construe some other meaning to the job or to their reasons for working there. Rather than see thier jobs as instrumental (purely) I would argue that we often construe meaning them to enrich their life and provide some justification (cognitive dissonance) as to why we care about them and work so hard in them. This can be a positive form of construal if it allows one to add meaning into ones lives and to find meaning in the otherwise tedious. So a task which is tedious can be construed as being part of an exciting project or as part of the companies mission. Or an otherwise boring job can be construed as being very important or as being fun given the right primers (say, an employee is told that they are very good at it). So construal plays a large part in our views of ones role in a company.
Lastly, construal can take place around the social dimensions of a company. The companies culture might provide social pressure for one to construe the world (or ones competitors) in a certain way. As the Bennington studies show, our social environment and norms can be very powerful. So a Microsoft employee might view anti-trust laws very differently than a Sun-Microsystems employee. Or a GE employee might be less impressed with the “internet” since he produces ‘real products’ than a member of a startup. Social pressures in an organization can be powerful in shaping ones world view about some topics.
Construal applied to theories of emotion
Emotions and construal are intricately linked. We feel emotions about the way we believe the world is (at least for those emotions which are instrumental) and the world is as we construe it. But the relationship also goes the other way – not only do we feel emotions through the lens of construal, but we construe through the lenses of emotions! Thus there is a very strong feedback loop between these two concepts. Our emotional states deeply affect the way we perceive the world around us. This implies that even in identical situations, our emotional state will be a very important moderator to our interpretation and construal of the world (and vice versa).
The debate between Lazarus and Zajonc is one in which construal is very central. The central question is whether or not cognition (which crucially includes construal) proceeds emotion. Lazarus claims that in almost all cases (he allows for the possibility that some hardwired emotions are an exception) cognition precedes – is necessary and sufficient for – emotion. His claim can be glossed with the idea that the world must be mediated with cognition since one must at a very minimum understand/interpret the objects of the world around oneself before one can emotionally react to it. In dealing with the counterargument that emotion seems to come very, very quickly and at the very beginning of some situations before full understanding has been processed (before the world has been fully digested and construed), he argues that cognition can be partial and, once internalized, very quick. The disagreement can be seen in the statement “I would certainly agree that a person need not be aware of his or her cognitive appraisals… but I would argue against the idea that some appraisals (Zajonc refers to preferences) are non-cognitive” (1022). But if we are defining cognition as any sort of appraisal, then it does seem logically true that we must unconsciously appraise a situation before we can have an emotion to it. One some level it seems we must register “edge” or “snake” or merely “snakelike characteristics” upon which our fear and emotional reactions proceed.
If we had just gained our eyesight (after being blind) the world around us would have no meaning and would just be flashes of undifferentiated color and light – i.e. we would not construe meaning into the world we would just observe the meaningless colors and shapes. This seems too weak a definition for “thinking” or true “cognition,” and this is exactly the point Zajonc pounces, but then he goes further and I do not follow. “My definition of cognition required some form of transformation of a present or past sensory input. ‘Pure’ sensory input, untransformed according to a more of less fixed code, is not cognition” (118). This seems like a perfectly fine necessary condition for cognition but he treats it as a sufficient one, which clashes with my earlier point (and Lazarus’s argument is suddenly back from the dead – pun intended). A man who has never seem a snake/poison toad will not react emotionally to it, will not construe it as an object of danger either consciously or unconsciously. Clearly, one must register it as a snake (perhaps globally, or tentatively, or incompletely) and then ones automatic emotional reaction can occur. I am not sure what Zajonc, who I believe has the better of the argument in general, would respond to this. Nevertheless, I think Lazarus is begging the question with his definition of cognition and that more is required – that some sort of construal is necessary.
Isen and Baron’s piece, speaks of “positive affect, defined as pleasant feelings induced by commonplace events or circumstances”. Whether we are going to define such “moods” or “states of mind” as emotions is questionable and, to be fair, the authors never claim to. The essay claims that a positive state of mind, often easily induced by giving someone candy or a warm welcome, significantly effects their actions and social behavior for the better. This change is significant enough for Isen and Baron to suggest that the field of OB might be benefited from looking at this effect for workplace and sales applications. In its essence, we consrue the identical actions or things in certain moods than in others.
The world of Taylor and Brown is especially illuminating to the idea of construal. It made the argument that wearing rose-tinted glasses (as Shakespeare put it) could be (and generally is) an adaptive strategy. It thus put itself at odds with the literature which defined mental health as having an accurate picture of self and with the normative claim that this would even be desirable. It shows us yet again that the central tension in construal between truthfulness and usefulness is real. Rose tinted glasses may be useful (for some hard-wired cognitive reason, or some intrinsic-structural ego reason) but it is not necessarily illustrative of ones real abilities or skills.
If construal theory, in this essay, has shown us one thing, it is that the world is interpreted for our use, and that while truthfulness is a component of that , it is not the only one by any means. Our minds have an amazing ability and a heavy burden. Our minds have the ability to construe the world, to interpret the world, to shape our perceptions of the world. But they also have the burden if doing this shaping in such a way that they preserve the sometimes contradictory ideas of truthfulness and usefulness. What is ‘real’ in the world or the way other see it, is not necessarily the way we do, or ought. But at the same time, there is some value to seeing things as others do (both so you can predict their actions and so you have a common frame of reference in which to cooperate). Lastly, there is a third force which this work has shown us affects the construal process. It is the environmental and cognitive background of the world – the moods, emotions, light-exposure, air-pressure, etc.. While these are often useful in viewing the world, in these cases they seem to be intruding where they are apparently not helpful (it is hard to see how less light ought to make one feel worse about oneself). So our construal process moderated between these three forces in order to give us our world-view, understanding of causality, value judgments, emotions, and interpretations of the world. Perhaps humility in the face of such complexity and such amazing achievements of nature to make, through construal and other cognitive processes, the incomprehensible comprehensible, the complex relatively understandable is best summed up by Ecclesiastes: “vanity vanity, all is vanity… and that which is crooked shall not be made straight, and that which is lacking shall not be counted.”
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This article is also available on GroundReport
Phin Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.