Can applying a simple concept lead to faster and more creative decisions for you and your business? New York University business professor Evan Polman and Cornell’s Kyle Emich conducted research that suggests so.
The academics’ report in the April 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that research test participants who were more distant from a problem were able to develop more innovative and groundbreaking approaches than participants who were closer to the scenario. They were also able to solve problems more quickly.
Their research is based on construal level theory, which posits that a sense of distance — whether in time, space or social connection — leads to more abstract thinking. When our thoughts move from the concrete to the abstract, we are able to look at issues in new ways. This fresh perspective can lead to new and creative insights.
Polman and Emich conducted several experiments to test their theory. In one test, participants were instructed to draw an alien that would be used for a science fiction story. Some participants thought their drawing was for their own use. Others were told their drawing would be used for someone else’s story.
For many of us, a reference point for our image of a space visitor is the movies, where it’s common to see aliens who resemble humans. For example, these extra-terrestrials will usually have two arms, two legs and two eyes. Remember E.T.?
In the study, when the participants thought their drawing of an alien was for someone else’s use, they limited their use of human details and became freer and more innovative in their artwork.
In another example, the professors asked participants to imagine they were locked in a tower with no means to escape other than a rope. The rope, however, only stretched halfway to the ground.
Participants who imagined they were helping someone else escape did better than those who imagined themselves as the prisoner. Those working on behalf of someone else were more likely to suggest an effective solution — that the rope be split in half lengthwise with the ends tied together so the prisoner could safely reach the ground.
In a third study, students were asked to chose a gift for themselves, someone close to them or someone far removed. The most creative gift ideas were for those people most distant from the giver.
What this research means for you
The research suggests that the buddy system might benefit you at work when you’re challenged to find a creative solution. Ask your colleagues for help and in return, help them with a problem when they are stumped.
If that’s not possible or if you’re working on your own, try imagining that you’re solving the problem for someone else. Stepping into someone else’s shoes can lend you the needed psychological distance to find a more innovative solution.
Have you found a creative solution to a problem by imagining you are solving it for someone else?