Missing the trees for the forest: a construal level account of the illusion of explanatory depth.

Adam L. Alter, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Jeffrey C. Zemla

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


An illusion of explanatory depth (IOED) occurs when people believe they understand a concept more deeply than they actually do. To date, IOEDs have been identified only in mechanical and natural domains, occluding why they occur and suggesting that their implications are quite limited. Six studies illustrated that IOEDs occur because people adopt an inappropriately abstract construal style when they assess how well they understand concrete concepts. As this mechanism predicts, participants who naturally adopted concrete construal styles (Study 1) or were induced to adopt a concrete construal style (Studies 2-4 and 6), experienced diminished IOEDs. Two additional studies documented a novel IOED in the social psychological domain of electoral voting (Studies 5 and 6), demonstrating the generality of the construal mechanism, the authors also extended the presumed boundary conditions of the effect beyond mechanical and natural domains. These findings suggest a novel factor that might contribute to such diverse social-cognitive shortcomings as stereotyping, egocentrism, and the planning fallacy, where people adopt abstract representations of concepts that should be represented concretely. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)436-451
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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