We value creativity and are often justifiably proud of our most creative acts. Solving a difficult problem at work is a major achievement. Writing a song or creating a novel work of art is an amazing feat. If you wander the aisles of your local bookstore, you find lots of books that promise to unleash your inner creative genius.
So, when a research finding comes along that suggests an easy way to improve your creativity, you should sit up and listen.
A paper by Evan Polman and Kyle Emich in the April 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides just this kind of straightforward demonstration.
One of the factors that often prevents people from doing something really creative is their existing knowledge. If you are writing a song, it is hard to come up with something that is very different from what other people have written, because you are reminded of melodies that you have heard before. If you are solving a problem at work, there is a tendency to focus on solutions that people have used in the past to solve similar problems.
So how do you break away from the influence of the past?
Polman and Emich make use of construal level theory. This theory, developed by Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman and their colleagues, suggests that we think about things that are near to us in space or time in specific terms, but we think about things that are far from us in space or time in more abstract terms. For example, when thinking about a trip you might take to Paris next summer, you might focus on how much fun it would be or how great it would be to sit in a café and watch the world go by. When thinking about a trip to Paris you are going to take next week, though, you focus on what you are going to wear, how you are going to exchange money and what you will do when you encounter Parisians who speak no English.
Polman and Emich reason that if you are trying to think creatively, then generating some distance between you and the problem you are solving might enhance your creativity. Indeed, some research by Jens Forster, Ron Friedman and Nira Liberman in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that this might be true.
To create a sense of psychological distance, Polman and Emich had people perform a variety of tasks that tap creativity. They either performed these tasks while thinking about themselves or when thinking about someone else.
In one study, people were asked to draw aliens. Tom Ward has done research on creativity and has shown that most people who draw aliens give them lots of properties that exist in animals on earth: they often have two eyes and are symmetric, with similar limbs on each side of their bodies. In other words, most people do not draw creative aliens. They are stuck using their knowledge of animals, even when they are trying to do something really novel.
In one of Polman and Emich's studies, people were asked to draw an alien for a story they would write later, or they were asked to draw an alien for a story that would be written by someone else. A group of independent raters then looked to see how many properties the aliens had that are not typical of animals on earth. The people who drew aliens for themselves used many fewer novel properties than the people who drew aliens for someone else to use. That is, people were less creative when drawing for themselves than when drawing for someone else.
In another study, people were asked to solve an insight problem. The problem involves a prisoner stuck in a tall tower. The prisoner finds a rope that is half as long as it needs to be to climb out of the tower and escape. The prisoner divides the rope in half and ties the two parts together and escapes. How does he do this?
Half of the people were given this problem and were told to imagine that they were the prisoner. The other half were told to imagine that someone else was the prisoner. About two thirds of the people who solved the problem for someone else got the right answer, while only about half of the people who solved the problem for themselves got it right. Again, thinking for someone else made people more creative.
(By the way, the right answer here is to divide the rope lengthwise, and then tie the ends together and climb to safety.)
These results suggest a simple way of helping yourself to be more creative. When you are in a situation where you need to escape the curse of your own specific knowledge, pretend that you are being creative on behalf of someone else. That will help you think about the problem more abstractly and avoid simply repeating the solutions you already know about.