Seeing the forest when entry is unlikely: probability and the mental representation of events

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2006 Nov;135(4):641-53. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.135.4.641.


Conceptualizing probability as psychological distance, the authors draw on construal level theory (Y. Trope & N. Liberman, 2003) to propose that decreasing an event's probability leads individuals to represent the event by its central, abstract, general features (high-level construal) rather than by its peripheral, concrete, specific features (low-level construal). Results indicated that when reported probabilities of events were low rather than high, participants were more broad (Study 1) and inclusive (Study 2) in their categorization of objects, increased their preference for general rather than specific activity descriptions (Study 3), segmented ongoing behavior into fewer units (Study 4), were more successful at abstracting visual information (Study 5), and were less successful at identifying details missing within a coherent visual whole (Study 6). Further, after exposure to low-probability as opposed to high-probability phrases, participants increasingly preferred to identify actions in ends-related rather than means-related terms (Study 7). Implications for probability assessment and choice under uncertainty are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Choice Behavior
  • Concept Formation
  • Decision Making
  • Female
  • Field Dependence-Independence*
  • Humans
  • Imagination*
  • Judgment*
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Probability Learning*
  • Psychophysics
  • Uncertainty