Psychological Distance Stimulates Creativity

Scientific American reports on a new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues from Indiana University in which they demonstrate that increasing psychological distance to a problem can increase creativity:

Why does psychological distance increase creativity? According to construal level theory (CLT), psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete. Consider, for instance, a corn plant. A concrete representation would refer to the shape, color, taste, and smell of the plant, and connect the item to its most common use – a food product. An abstract representation, on the other hand, might refer to the corn plant as a source of energy or as a fast growing plant. These more abstract thoughts might lead us to contemplate other, less common uses for corn, such as a source for ethanol, or to use the plant to create mazes for children. What this example demonstrates is how abstract thinking makes it easier for people to form surprising connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, such as fast growing plants (corn) and fuel for cars (ethanol).

These results build on previous studies which demonstrated that distancing in time – projecting an event into the remote future – and assuming an event to be less likely (that is, distancing on the probability dimension) can also enhance creativity.  In a series of experiments that examined how temporal distance affects performance on various insight and creativity tasks, participants were first asked to imagine their lives a year later (distant future) or the next day (near future), and then to imagine working on a task on that day in the future. Participants who imagined a distant future day solved more insight problems than participants who imagined a near future day. They also performed better on visual insight tasks, which required detecting coherent images in “noisy” visual input, as well as on creative generation tasks (e.g., listing ways to improve the look of a room). Similar evidence has been found for probability. Participants were more successful at solving sample items from a visual insight task when they believed they were unlikely, as opposed to likely, to encounter the full task.

This research has important practical implications. It suggests that there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality. Perhaps the modern environment, with its increased access to people, sights, music, and food from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly. So the next time you’re stuck on a problem that seems impossible don’t give up. Instead, try to gain a little psychological distance, and pretend the problem came from somewhere very far away.

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