Research has shown that increasing “psychological distance” so that a problem feels further away can actually increase creativity. This is because 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. And we become more creative, the more we allow ourselves to think abstractly, and open ourselves up to unusual, unique ideas. Abstract thinking makes it easier for people to form surprising connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.
Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity, by examining the effect of spatial distance on creativity. Participants in this 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.
It works not only with distance in terms of miles, but also distance in terms of time. 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.
These studies suggest 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.
In this Creative Mindflexor, have your child picture themselves sitting in their room and have them write out everything they can think of that an apple can be used for. Wait a week, and then have your child picture themselves visiting a relative that lives far away. Have them describe to you where they are envisioning that they are visiting. Tell them, in their mind to think of themselves sitting in that relative’s house and have them again write down everything an apple can be used for. Now, compare the two lists and see if your child’s list was longer or more innovative when they were picturing themselves somewhere other than their own house. Remind your child to use this “distancing” technique the next time they are trying to come up with a creative solution to a problem or an idea.