How thinking for others can boost your creativity

Distancing ourselves from a problem can help us reach the solution

The next time you’re struggling to solve a creative problem, try solving it for someone else. According to Evan Polman and Kyle Emich, we’re more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. This is just the latest extension of research into construal level theory, an intriguing concept that suggests various aspects of psychological distance can affect our thinking style.

It’s been shown, for example, that greater physical and temporal distance lead us to think more abstractly, such that you’re more likely to solve a problem if you imagine being confronted by it in a far-off place and/or at a future time (read Jonah Lehrer’s take on what this says about the importance of holidays). Now Polman and Emich have shown that social distance can have the same psychological benefit.

Across four studies involving hundreds of undergrads, Polman and Emich found that participants drew more original aliens for a story to be written by someone else than for a story they were to write themselves; that participants thought of more original gift ideas for an unknown student completely unrelated to themselves, as opposed to one who they were told shared their same birth month; and that participants were more likely to solve an escape-from-tower problem if they imagined someone else trapped in the tower, rather than themselves (a 66 vs. 48 per cent success rate). Briefly, the tower problem requires you to explain how a prisoner escaped the tower by cutting a rope that was only half as long as the tower was high. The solution is that he divided the rope lengthwise into two thinner strips and then tied them together.

The researchers were careful to consider a range of possible confounding factors, including confidence in our knowledge of ourselves versus others, emotional involvement and feelings of closeness. None of these made much difference to the main result. On the other hand, among participants who tackled the tower problem, it was those who said afterwards that they felt the tower was further away, who tended to have found the solution. This reinforces the researchers’ claim that solving a problem for a stranger is easier because of the feeling of psychological distance that it creates.

The study has some limitations – the participants didn’t know who they were solving a problem for, other than that they were another student. When it comes to applying the lessons of this research to real life, it will surely make a difference who we think we’re solving a problem for – be they a stranger, a relative or a manager. Future research could look at this.

‘The practical implications of our findings are striking in the extent of their reach,’ the researchers concluded with gusto. ‘That decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self is not only valuable information for researchers in social psychology, decision making, marketing, and management but also should prove of considerable interest to negotiators, managers, product designers, marketers, and advertisers, among many others.’

ResearchBlogging.orgPolman E, and Emich KJ (2011). Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 21317316