Creativity is commonly thought of as a personality trait that resides within the individual. We count on creative people to produce the songs, movies, and books we love; to invent the new gadgets that can change our lives; and to discover the new scientific theories and philosophies that can change the way we view the world. Over the past several years, however, social psychologists have discovered that creativity is not only a characteristic of the individual, but may also change depending on the situation and context. The question, of course, is what those situations are: what makes us more creative at times and less creative at others?
One answer is psychological distance. According to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person's perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely. In this new paper, by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.
Why does psychological distance increase creativity? According to 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).
In this most recent set of studies, Jia and colleagues examined the effect of spatial distance on creativity. Participants in the first study performed a creative generation task, in which they were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. This task was introduced as having been developed either by Indiana University students studying in Greece (distant condition) or by Indiana University students studying in Indiana (near condition). As predicted, participants in the distant condition generated more numerous and original modes of transportation than participants in the near condition.
Similar results were obtained in the second study, in which performance on three insight problems was gauged. Here’s a sample problem:
A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?
This is known as an insight problem since the solution – the prisoner unraveled the rope lengthwise and tied the remaining strands together – typically arrives in a flash of insight, or what’s commonly referred to as an Aha moment.
For the insight problems, participants were told that the questions were developed either by a research institute located in California, "around 2,000 miles away" (distant condition), or in Indiana, "2 miles away," (near condition). In a third, control group no information regarding location was mentioned. As expected, participants in the distant condition solved more problems than participants in the proximal condition and in the control condition. Because the problems seemed farther away, they were easier to solve.
This pair of studies suggests that even minimal cues of psychological distance can make us more creative. Although the geographical origin of the various tasks was completely irrelevant – it shouldn’t have mattered where the questions came from – simply telling subjects that they came from somewhere far away led to more creative thoughts.
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.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His latest book is How We Decide.