Tuesday, 1 March 2011

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


Anonymous said...

I suspect this demonstrates the advantage of being in careers which empower us to solve the problems of people who desire creative solutions. Examples include wedding planners, high end chefs and web page designers.

crzydroid said...

Could someone say that this study might also be studying the amount of effort or work people put into things when it's done for themselves vs. for others, rather than "creativity" per se?

Lisa Renee Pomerantz said...

Perhaps we impose our personal constraints when we are solving it for ourselves.

Benjamin - The Social Anxiety Guide said...

Interesting, I've never read about this before. I often think for my clients in therapy, and perhaps I am becoming more creative as a result of this. Good to know that thinking for others is good for you!

Ruthie Culver - www.timeforachange.biz said...

As a coach I find clients get great results with a few NLP processes that are based on this kind of distancing technique.

Its always nice to have more independent research showing that NLP works.

Nathalie Nahai | We make them click said...

This is a compelling article - it's interesting that research around the subject of creativity and problem solving is becoming more prevalent, especially at a time in which collaborative and co-working spaces are becoming very popular choices for smaller businesses.

Collaboration does seem conducive to effective problem-solving and successful innovation. I'd love to read more on the subject!

Anonymous said...


Research going back to the late 1950's shows that group work actually reduces creativity, at least when it comes to divergent thinking and idea generation.

Ben said...

There are possible problems with this study:

1) How was creativity assessed?
2) Was a single sample assigned to both experimental groups (thinking for oneself and for another), if so carry over effects could be present here; performing the former condition first could start idea generation so that the latter receives more original ideas, or performing the latter first could exhaust one's cognitive faculties leading to less creative answers for the former.
3) If different samples were used for each condition then how can we directly compare their creativity?

ACS Distance Education said...

This is the concept that teachers cannot just give knowledge; rather that knowledge must be “constructed” in the minds of the students. Constructivism is based on the philosophy of learning that by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. We will generate our own “rules” and “mental models”, which we use to make sense of our experiences. So learning is just the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate any new experiences. The principles of constructivism are –

1. Learning is a search for meaning. Students are trying to construct meaning around some issues, so the learning must start around those issues.
2. To teach well, we must understand the mental models that students use to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support the models.
3. Meaning requires understanding parts and wholes. Parts should be understood in context of wholes, so learning should not focus on isolated facts, but primary concepts.

The individual’s purpose for learning is to construct his/her own meaning, not to learn the “right” answer or regurgitate someone else’s meaning.

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