Psychological Distance: why distancing yourself from your problem leads to more creative solutions

Research shows that people come up with more creative solutions if they think they are solving a problem that occurs in a distant land. It also helps to imagine you are a little child…

Psychological distance
We often talk about our business with experts on various topics. These mentors sometimes advise us to do things we would never have thought of ourselves. More often, however, they give us valuable advice that seems breathtakingly obvious in hindsight. Why didn’t we think of it ourselves?

You probably have experienced this phenomenon yourself many times. It simply is much easier to solve someone else’s problem, than it is to tackle your own issues. Well, it turns out there is an explanation for that.

Research indicates that ‘psychological distance’ enables people to come up with more creative solutions. Psychological distance occurs when you experience something as NOT happening here, now and to yourself. In other words: the further away a problem seems, the easier it is to solve. You’ll not only have little trouble figuring out how to handle a situation concerning someone else, you will also quickly find solutions to situations that took place in the past, are about to occur in the distant future, or are troubling people in a distant land.

Self-induced psychological distance
Being good at solving other people’s problems is great, but wouldn’t it be nice to be equally efficient while handling your own issues? Good news: you can actually create psychological distance by changing your perspective. Look at the problem from another person’s perspective, and creative solutions will present themselves. By imagining your problem as if it were concerning someone else, you can artificially create a bit of much needed mental distance.

It even works to think about your problem as if you were a 7-year old! In the video fragment below Tom Kelley, partner at the famous design firm IDEO, explains how imagining you are a distant age can help spark creativity in even the ‘slowest’ of teams.

Creating psychological distance makes the problem less concrete. More abstract. Thinking about a subject as something distant makes it easier to make unusual connections. You free yourself from assumed limitations.

This is one of the reasons why in our workshops we don’t let people practise on challenges from within their own field. Experience has taught us that untrained people find it hard to come up with creative ideas when the subject is too familiar. I recall a workshop session with people working for a bank. When trying to come up with ideas for a safer ATM, participants would add to each new idea “but that will never work”. A few moments later, when we asked them to come up with new ways to prevent vandalism of bus shelters, they effortlessly (and enthusiastically) came up with the most creative ideas.

How the CIA utilised psychological distance
It is said that even the CIA used psychological distance to solve tricky problems. CIA operatives would be told “The KGB already solved this problem. Now we have to solve it too.” Believing agents in a faraway country had already tackled the problem, participants would be more likely to find creative solutions.

Try it out yourself
Researchers and intelligence agencies may say that psychological distance works, but the most convincing evidence is, of course, your own experience. See if the following questions spark your creativity. Try out the thought experiments below to solve your seemingly unsolvable problem:

– How would you solve this problem if it was bugging a villager in a country on the other side of the world (in a little village in Siberia or in a small town in Brazil)?
– How would Napoleon Bonaparte (or another historical figure) solve your problem?
– If an alien landed his shiny UFO in your back garden, what advice would he give you?
– Imagine yourself in ten years’ time. You are looking back on the problem you had and how you solved it. What actions did you take?

Chances are, the simple thought experiments above will stimulate you to come up with original solutions. By distancing yourself from the task at hand, you free your mind to explore new possibilities.

So, the next time you are stuck with an impossible problem, ask yourself:
What solutions can I come up with when I imagine my problem takes place in a faraway country? What about when it takes place in the future? Or in the past?


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Showing 2 comments
  • Gerard

    I definitely need to find more ‘distance’ for myself more often 😉 Thanks for these ideas

    • René de Ruijter

      You’re very welcome Gerard! Have a great weekend 🙂

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