When you think about the dinner you ate last night, do you think about why you chose to eat what you did or do you consider how you made it and what you specifically ate?
When you think about your musical preferences, does an entire genre come to mind? Or do specific artists pop into your head?
The former of these two examples signifies an abstract mindset. An abstract mindset is a global, big picture mindset. Abstract ideas do not hold an explicit place is space and time. In other words, abstractions do not have a material locus. For example, we cannot picture the concept of “peace” or “knowledge,” because both of these are abstract concepts. We cannot readily picture “why” we do something, even though we may have many reasons.
The latter of each of these examples represents a concrete mindset, where the focus is on the details and the here and the now. Concrete entities do hold a specific place in time and space, and they do have a material referent. We can picture a concrete entity, such as how we made our dinner or a specific musical artist.
More broadly, our mindset involves our current thought mode, a way of processing information, or a cognitive style. When we are in a certain state of mind, we might be more prone to thinking about the future; we may be better at perspective taking. Mindset shapes the accessibility of mental processes. Different mindsets can lead us to construe the world or our experiences in differing ways, and accordingly adjust choices and behaviors.
For example, if we are in an abstract mindset, we may more readily imagine future possibilities because the abstract mindset makes future possibilities easier to construct in our mind. When future outcomes are more accessible, then we should be more likely to choose according to what might be beneficial to us later on. By contrast, if we are in a more concrete mindset, we may focus more on the most immediately satisfying option because the concrete properties of the choice are mentally accessible. Thus, if we are in a concrete mindset we may prefer safer, risk averse options to gambles.
Further, our own unique preferences for particular mindsets might interact with transient mindsets that are elicited by particular situations. For instance, if I generally prefer (or naturally engage in) an abstract mindset, but I have recently exercised concrete thinking to complete a task, which will have the most sway over my subsequent choices: my personal style or the immediate context?
My research apprentice recently addressed these questions. She conducted a research study where we manipulated the participant’s mindset using a how/why task and an example/exemplar task (concrete/abstract mindsets, respectively) and examined whether mindset caused changes in decision-making patterns. Specifically, she examined intertemporal choices, where participants choose between an immediately satisfying monetary option and a larger, and delayed monetary option (e.g., spending your money now, or saving it for later). She also examined risky choices, where the participants choose between a sure monetary outcome versus a probable monetary outcome (e.g., savings account or stock market). In addition, she collected data on each individual’s “personal style,” by assessing how much the participants relate to their future selves.
We found that regardless of how close participants in the abstract condition felt to their future self, they chose a similar proportion of future oriented options. However, in the concrete condition, individuals with less connection to their future self were more likely to choose immediately gratifying options. Said differently, a concrete mindset plus a weaker dispositional connection with your future self led to more present-oriented choices.
We also found that participants in the concrete condition were more likely to make safer decisions, regardless of individual differences in connection to their future self. However, participants in the abstract condition, who were also higher on future self-liking, were more likely to make riskier decisions. In other words, a stronger connection to your self in 10 years plus an abstract mindset led to riskier choices.