When Distancing from the Problem Hurts Creative Thinking

Distancing from the problem, as the previous post discussed, is a solid method for increasing creativity: studies generally show that psychological distance helps with insight and creative generation because it leads to abstract information processing. Although there is little doubt that psychological distance is often invaluable for creative thinking, there are solid reasons why any one-sided recommendation to distance from the problem is counterproductive.

Distancing Impairs Detail-Oriented Creative Thinking

Distancing, first of all, may be counterproductive because creative generation sometimes works better with detail-oriented and concrete thinking as opposed to more intuitive problem solving. There is growing recognition in psychological research that this pathway to creative thinking can lead to equally creative ideas, but it requires concrete representations which would be weakened by psychological distance.

Distancing Hurts Overall Creative Process

Another major reason why distancing from the problem may be a bad idea is that it might impair overall creative process. The studies that show positive effects of psychological distance on insight and creative generation normally use relatively simple creativity tasks or well-defined problems. Yet, in contrast to tasks used in laboratory research, real-world creativity is not as simple as figuring out how a prisoner could escape from a tower or generating as many different modes of transportation as possible within a few minutes or drawing an alien.

Real creative work usually involves much more difficult tasks, and overall success depends on many motivational factors,[1] such as self-efficacy and persistence.[2] This especially applies to more challenging tasks, such as ill-defined or wicked problems. With such tasks, motivation and other similar elements might be significantly more important than a slightly enhanced insight or creative generation. In this context, psychological distance can undermine critical factors such as self-efficacy and expectancy.[3] Therefore, the overall effect of distancing may be noticeably negative. To illustrate in more detail one specific aspect of this, consider how abstractness (which is increased by distancing) influences action taking.

Distancing and Action Taking

The strength between thought and action is noticeably influenced by abstractness: the more concrete the thought the stronger is its link to action. Neuroscientific research suggests that concrete mindsets are associated with fronto-parietal regions, which are the central part of the motor system and are also implicated in goal-directed action; abstraction, on the other hand, is not associated with any specific and distinct neural activity (except for a small cluster within the early visual cortex).[4]

One might wonder if abstract representations have a negative effect on action taking, why our brains at all have such a highly-evolved capacity for abstraction? For one, in many situations the ability to refrain from action is invaluable. Self-control is one example. For example, to reduce automatic responses and so increase the chances that you will successfully fight off temptations, you can use more abstract thoughts for any tempting activities such as checking your email and Twitter feed or for other temptations such as a piece of a brownie when you’re on a diet. And studies exactly show that abstract representations enhance self-control.[5]

Apart from self-control, abstract representations may be highly adaptive in other situations where action-taking can be a bad idea. Researchers Michael Gilead, Nira Liberman, and Anat Maril provide one illustration:

The strength of abstractions lies in the fact that they are applicable in multiple contexts and instances. For example, upon hearing a rattle in the woods, a hunter can prepare for an encounter with a specific exemplar such as a wild boar, by automatically activating an action schema associated with approaching and chasing the prey. However, if his prediction is incorrect, and the rattle was caused by a wild bear, then committing to a specific course of action could be fatal. Therefore, an adaptive response is to activate the more abstract category animal, which does not entail a specific, automatic motor response.[6]

When it comes to the real-world creativity, action taking is obviously crucial, procrastination being the arch-enemy of most people doing creative work or trying to develop innovative ideas. So even if distancing from the problem might enhance ideation, its overall effect could more negative than positive. Of course, distancing (and abstract representations) may prove invaluable if the inability to refrain from temptations is the weak link in the creative process. So ultimately, just as with abstract processing generally, it may be best to continuously alternate between increased and decreased psychological distance:

  • When you need to take action, use more concrete thoughts. The previous post mentioned the basic ways to increase psychological distance; when you need to reduce it, just use them in reverse. In short, you’ll want to imagine that a problem is close in time, that its core elements are close to you physically, that it affects you or someone close to you, that it is real or very likely to happen.
  • Conversely, when you need to reduce automatic responses and actions, try to increase psychological distance or use other ways to induce more abstract representations.

Notes

[1] Teresa M. Amabile. Creativity in Context: Update to the Social Psychology of Creativity (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).

[2] Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren. People Underestimate the Value of Persistence for Creative Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 232-243 (2015). DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000030; Jin Nam Choi. Individual and Contextual Predictors of Creative Performance: The Mediating Role of Psychological Processes. Creativity Research Journal, 16, 187-199 (2004). DOI:10.1080/10400419.2004.9651452.

[3] Nira Liberman, Yaacov Trope, and Elena Stephan. Psychological Distance. In Arie W. Kruglanski and E. Tori Higgins (eds.), Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles (NY: Guilford Press, 2007) p. 371.

[4] Michael Gilead, Nira Liberman, and Anat Maril, From Mind to Matter: Neural Correlates of Abstract and Concrete Mindsets. SCAN, 9,638-645 (2014). DOI:10.1093/scan/nst031.

[5] Kentaro Fujita, Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman, and Maya Levin-Sagi. Construal Levels and Self-Control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 351–367 (2006). DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.90.3.351.

[6] Michael Gilead, Nira Liberman, and Anat Maril, From Mind to Matter: Neural Correlates of Abstract and Concrete Mindsets. SCAN, 9,642 (2014). DOI:10.1093/scan/nst031.