Why Distancing From the Problem Helps Creative Thinking

One of the most widely prescribed creativity recommendations is to increase distance from the problem, for example, by imagining the problem in the distant future or by considering how other people would solve it. This recommendation traditionally circulated in popular creativity books and other similar sources, but over the last decade, it has also received some research backing.

So understandably, the idea that creativity rises when we distance ourselves from the problem is becoming more and more generally accepted. The next post will discuss two major reasons why such one-sided recommendation is dangerous because sometimes distancing might impair creative thinking, and this post briefly summarizes research showing that psychological distance enhances creative thinking.

What is Psychological Distance

Psychological distance, as one of the previous posts explained, exists whenever we deal with things that are removed from our direct experience. So essentially, psychologically distant are all the things which we cannot experience directly ourselves here and now. However, things can be more distant and less distant. This applies to all four dimensions of psychological distance:

  • Temporal: an event which takes place a year from now is more distant than an event which takes place tomorrow;
  • Spatial: something located thousands of miles away is more distant than something located a few miles away;
  • Social: something that relates to other people, especially people with whom we have little in common, is more distant than something that relates to us or someone close to us;
  • Hypotheticality: something that appears unreal, unlikely to happen, or magical is more distant than something that appears very real or likely to happen.

Research on Psychological Distance & Creativity

When it comes to creative thinking, psychological distance matters because it influences how abstractly we think. Construal-level theory, first formulated about 20 years ago by psychologists Nira Liberman Yaacov Trope, explains that greater distance leads to more abstract mental representations (technically called high-level construals),[1] and more abstract representations of the problem are the primary reason why distancing helps creativity.

Several studies tested how greater psychological distance would affect creativity and found that it had predictably positive effects, with different dimensions of psychological distance producing similarly positive effects.

  • Time Distance. In the first study, published in 2004, psychologists Jens Förster, Ronald Friedman, and Nira Liberman showed that insight is enhanced by time distance: subjects were more likely to solve the prisoner-and-the-rope problem if they were asked to imagine their lives one year from now and then work on the problem.[2]
  • Spatial Distance. A 2009 study by Indiana University psychologists found similar effects with spatial distance: subjects performed better when they thought that the creative task was developed by a research institution located in California, about 2,000 miles away from them, compared with the subjects who thought that the same task was developed by the research institution located a few miles away from them in Indiana.[3] A 2012 study by Liberman and her colleagues also replicated this finding with children, showing that they were slightly more creative after being primed with greater spatial distance.[4]
  • Social Distance. A 2011 study by New York University and Cornell University researchers Evan Polman and Kyle Emich found positive effects for social distance: subjects were able to draw more creative aliens when they were drawing an alien for someone else than when they were drawing an alien for themselves; they also generated more creative ideas on behalf of other people who were distant to them than on behalf of people who were close to them.[5]

Increasing Psychological Distance

In practice, when you need to enhance abstract information processing through increased psychological distance, you can manipulate one of its four dimensions:

  1. Time. Imagine solving a problem in the distant future (a few years from now, or that it happened in a very distant past).
  2. Space. Imagine that an event or an object is located far away or some central features of a problem are physically distant from you, perhaps an object representing your problem is located thousands of miles away or an event takes place in some distant location.
  3. Social Distance. Imagine that a problem affects not you but someone else, especially someone dissimilar to you (someone unlike you; with whom you have few commonalities). Also, you can imagine that you problem will be solved by somebody else. As the last post mentioned, power leads to increased abstract thinking, and one reason is that power increases social distance as powerful people feel dissimilar to others, so anything that makes you feel powerful will also lead to greater psychological distance.
  4. Hypotheticality. Imagine that a problem is unlikely to happen, to materialize, to become real in all or some of its critical aspects.

Notes

[1] Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope. The Role of Feasibility and Desirability Considerations in Near and Distant Future Decisions: A Test of Temporal Construal Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 5–18 (1998). DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.5.

[2] Jens Förster, Ronald S. Friedman, Nira Liberman. Temporal Construal Effects on Abstract and Concrete Thinking: Consequences for Insight and Creative Cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 177–189 (2004). DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.2.177.

[3] Lile Jia, Edward R. Hirt, Samuel C. Karpen. Lessons from a Faraway land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1127–1131 (2009). DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.015.

[4] Nira Liberman, Orli Polack, Boaz Hameiri, and Maayan Blumenfeld. Priming of Spatial Distance Enhances Children’s Creative Performance. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 111, 663–670 (2012).  DOI:10.1016/j.jecp.2011.09.007.

[5] Evan Polman & Kyle J. Emich. Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 492 –501 (2011). DOI: 10.1177/0146167211398362.