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

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Sep;99(3):436-51. doi: 10.1037/a0020218.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Concept Formation / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Illusions / physiology*
  • Illusions / psychology*
  • Male
  • Observer Variation
  • Politics
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Young Adult