From mind to matter: neural correlates of abstract and concrete mindsets

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Abstract

Much work in the field of social cognition shows that adopting an abstract (vs concrete) mindset alters the way people construe the world, thereby exerting substantial effects across innumerable aspects of human behavior. In order to investigate the cognitive and neural basis of these effects, we scanned participants as they performed two widely used tasks that induce an abstracting vs concretizing mindsets. Specifically, participants: (i) indicated ‘why’ perform certain activities (a task that involves abstraction) or ‘how’ the same activities are performed (a task that involves concretization) and (ii) generated superordinate categories for certain objects (a task that involves abstraction) or subordinate exemplars for the same objects (a task that involves concretization). We conducted a conjunction analysis of the two tasks, in order to uncover the neural activity associated with abstraction and concretization. The results showed that concretization was associated with activation in fronto-parietal regions implicated in goal-directed action; abstraction was associated with activity within posterior regions implicated in visual perception. We discuss these findings in light of construal-level theory’s notion of abstraction.

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