Creative problem solving is enhanced by thinking more abstractly or at an intellectual distance, rather than more concretely, according to research studies.
In my post Using Research to Enhance Creative Thinking – Part 2, I quoted from the article “15 Scientific Facts About Creativity” which notes that “psychological distance” facilitates creativity, and “when hitting a creative snag, the best thing thinkers can do for themselves is step away and try to look at everything from a completely different point of view.”
Evan Polman of New York University and Kyle Emich of Cornell University devised four studies on this creative strategy, with results published in their paper: “Decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self” [Abstract].
In his post How thinking for others can boost your creativity, Christian Jarrett summarizes: “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.”
One of the interesting comments on this post: “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.”
[The photo, which I titled Abstract Thinker, comes from the post.]
Book by the post author Christian Jarrett: The Rough Guide to Psychology.
Author Daniel Pink also writes about the research, explaining that for the part where participants were asked to draw a picture of an alien for a science fiction story:
“Half were told they would later write the story themselves; half were told that someone else would write the story. The aliens that people in the second group drew for others turned out to be more creative than those the first group drew for themselves.”
Pink summarizes: “Polman and Emich build upon existing psychological research showing that when we think of situations or individuals that are distant—in space, time, or social connection—we think of them in the abstract.
“But when those things are close—near us physically, about to happen, or standing beside us—we think about them concretely.”
He adds, “Over the years, social scientists have found that abstract thinking leads to greater creativity. That means that if we care about innovation, we need to be more abstract and therefore more distant.
“But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. We draw closer rather than step back.”
These quotes are from his free ebook: The Flip Manifest: 16 counterintuitive ideas about motivation, innovation, and leadership” – available from his site danpink.com.
Books by Daniel Pink:
Read part of a conversation between Daniel Pink and Seth Godin about “Drive” in my post Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, Ayn Rand on why creating is its own reward.
This value of cognitive and emotional distancing for developing creativity and innovation may be another reason it can be deeply helpful to overcome traumas and other mental health challenges, especially for creative people.