These two forms of cognition were distinguished by linguist Derek Bickerton. (Language and species (1990), Language and human behavior (1996), and others.) They refer to brain processes that depend for their elicitation on external stimulus (online), versus processes that can originate autonomously from internal processing (offline). Offline processing, an evolutionary product of language, originated in the long development of protolanguage—language-based concepts without syntax for their manipulation—by homo erectus; and marking the beginning of our species, the sudden emergence of syntax. Protolanguage provided the neural space for primitive offline processing, as when our ancestors could call up the thought of potential prey—without its having any particular empirical presence—by having learned the term for woolly mammoth. With syntax came the ability to think of anything. Thus, language evolved, more than as a tool for communication, as a vehicle for thought. (The most basic argument is that language could not have developed for communication because the ability to communicate depends on the listener’s ability to understand. A language mutation in a single organism, serving communication, would be useless.)
Online processing can be applied exclusively to matter that is immediately present. Only the offline variety of thinking, created by language—gradually through protolanguage and punctuatedly through syntax—enables abstraction. Distance and abstraction are the fundamental facets of construal level.
One way that abstractness and psychological distance seem to differ from offline processing is that construal level is a continuum, whereas offline/online processing is a dichotomy. Intermediate construal levels must be generated from elemental proportions. The dichotomous underpinnings of construal level are apparent in absolutely extreme construal levels—pure expressions; some processes are entirely online, like scratching an itch, and others, like thinking about metaphysics, are entirely offline. This pattern differs from dimensions, such as intelligence or extraversion, which are unbounded, without maxima. Construal level reveals its dichotomous essence in its modelike quality: a concrete/near and abstract/far polarity, despite the presence—even predominance—of intermediates.
I’m aware of one interpretation alternative to construal level as degree of offline processing. It comes from economist Robin Hanson’s homo hypocritus theory, which, among other interesting claims, holds that abstract construal serves impression management. Hanson’s theory says that our ancestors evolved mental modes involving concrete and abstract construal (Hanson terms them “near-mode” and “far-mode”) under pressure for separating the functions related to representing things as they are, on the one hand, and on the other, representing the self as we would like to be perceived. For Hanson, abstract construal is mainly about our ideals. Accordingly, he identifies abstract construal with Freud’s super-ego (conscientious tendency) and concrete construal with the id (impulses for immediate gratification).
On the present offline-processing analysis, abstract construal serves foresight more than moral hypocrisy, although morality and moral hypocrisy do require offline processes; in fact, they seem particularly insulated from online processing, and practical offline processing generally depends on the testing of abstract intuitions against concrete facts. Thus harnessed, offline thinking serves foresight, the abstract construals capturing essential causal relations for the sake of accurate long-term prediction.
The critical concrete fact that may decide the issue in favor of online/offline processing is that efforts at impression management, termed signaling, typically occurs online, in direct communication with another person, based on immediate perceptions. If, as Hanson claims, humans evolved two modes because the knowledge needed to manipulate the world would contaminate human efforts to impress others, then these modes are richly contaminated, because social signaling, in the prototypical face-to-face interaction, relies heavily on “near-mode” processing.
The strongest argument for a moralistic/hypocritical adaptation behind abstract construal is the human practice of fashioning arguments opportunistically, not as a tool to reach correct conclusions, but only as justification, as if one were defending against accusers. My alternative explanation is the opinion/belief analysis. We form and defend opinions in deliberation, whereas we act on beliefs. Abstract construal developed (during the protolanguage stage) under selective pressure for good deliberators.