Why Solving Other People’s Problems Is Easy

Statue of stick figure standing in a lake, far away in the distance

Photo by amandabhslater

You love your friend, I know that. But it doesn’t disguise the fact he’s getting on your nerves.

Once again, you’re sat listening to the same old complaints about the same old problems. You’ve been round and round in circles with this, many times.

Surely the answer is staring him in the face? Isn’t it obvious?

You’ve even told him what he needs to do, several times. But he still doesn’t get it. What’s going on here?

OK, let’s back up a little. I know you’re feeling frustrated and you’re only trying to help your friend. But it seems like he’s not getting the message. Let me tell you about some psychological research that sheds new light on this age-old situation.

How Psychological Distance Affects Creativity

In a recent article for Scientific American, Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman summarise research by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington, into the effect of psychological distance on creativity.

When we think about events happening far away, in the past or future, and/or to other people, they are said to be ‘psychologically distant’ from us. Psychological distance is reduced when you think about something happening right here, right now, to you.

According to the researchers, ‘even minimal cues of psychological distance can make us more creative’. They found that research subjects found it easier to solve problems when they were told that the questions had been devised by an institute 2,000 miles away as opposed to 2 miles away. Psychological distance can also be created by describing problems as happening to historical figures or fictional characters, instead of people living in modern society.

Logically, it shouldn’t make any difference to a challenge whether it was faced by Napoleon Bonaparte or Joe from next door. But psychological distance unlocks a different kind of thinking:

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.

(Shapira and Liberman, An Easy Way to Increase Creativity)

So, for example, if you read a novel about Francesca, a lady living in 18th-century Rome, who was stuck in a relationship with Paolo, a partner with a long-term history of alcohol abuse and destructive behaviour, it might seem obvious to you that Francesca couldn’t carry on nagging and placating Paolo and hoping things might change.

From this distance, the dynamics of the relationship are pretty clear: unless Francesca does something dramatic to interrupt the vicious cycle, it’s going to destroy them both. And although Francesca feels she has no choice, I’m sure you can think of several options for things she could do to help Paolo and save their relationship.

Not easy, but not impossible – right?

Now imagine looking into the eyes of the person you love most in the world, and feeling their pain and helplessness as they plead for “one more chance to put things right”. Chances are this situation doesn’t seem so clear-cut. And I’m guessing you would find it a lot harder to come up with creative options.

Objectively, the situation is identical. The only difference is in your perception. The further away the problem seems, the easier it is to see the patterns and relationships between the different elements, and to rearrange them in different combinations.

But that’s not all …

Once You See the Answer, You Have To Act on It

The research on psychological distance is fascinating and useful, but to me it only tells half the story. It may be an easy way to increase creativity if your definition of creativity is limited to creative thinking. But as we said right at the beginning of Lateral Action, creative thinking is not enough – you have to follow through on your insights and make things happen. And that’s where things can get ugly.

One reason it’s so easy for us to offer Francesca good advice is that we are not responsible for the consequences. It won’t be us in that room, having the painful heart-to-heart with Paolo. It won’t be us having to administer ‘tough love’ without support or understanding. And it won’t be us having to pick up the pieces if things go wrong.

And you know what? I bet that if Francesca could look into the future and see the problems we’re faced with right now, she could offer us some really stellar advice. But would we be willing to take it?

If you’ve ever had your eyes opened by some insightful words from a friend, when the scales fell from your eyes and the solution to your problem became clear – then felt the fear in your stomach when you realised what you’d have to do – then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Knowledge brings responsibility to act. And when it’s us in the hotseat, the fear of consequences can be a pretty big creativity killer.

How to Make Creative Use of Psychological Distance

Shapira and Liberman offer some excellent suggestions about the practical implications of the research:

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.

Other options include:

  • Imagining how your situation would look to aliens gazing through a telescope on Mars. What advice would the Martians give that troubled earthling?
  • Considering historical or fictional characters who faced similar problems — and what they did about them.
  • Taking our friends’ advice seriously. 🙂

But none of this addresses the fear of taking action, when difficulties loom large and the benefits seem small by comparison.

Let’s read that sentence again:

But none of this addresses the fear of taking action, when difficulties loom large and the benefits seem small by comparison.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Supposing we make some creative use of psychological distance here, to reverse the balance of difficulties and benefits?

Take a moment to imagine travelling into the future, to a time when the benefits seem real, solid and powerful – and the difficulties you went through to are already fading into history. Sure, making changes was tough at the time, but looking back on it now, you can see it was a price well worth paying.

How do you feel about taking action now? Difficult, but not impossible?

OK, to sum things up. When you’re stuck on a seemingly insurmountable problem:

Stage 1 – Generating Options
Use psychological distance (e.g. talking to others, travel, projecting into the past or future) to take yourself out of the here and now, and unlock your abstract creative thinking skills. If necessary, tell yourself you’re just ‘exploring options’ which you aren’t necessarily going to act on. 😉

Stage 2 – Taking Action
Use psychological distance to project yourself into the future, to a time when you are reaping the benefits of taking action and the difficulties seem small by comparison. Keep this future scenario family in mind, particularly when things get tough.

Over to You

That’s how things look to me – but maybe you can point out some creative options I’ve missed. 🙂

Have you ever struggled to persuade someone of the value of an ‘obvious’ solution to their problem? If you succeeded, how did you do it?

Have you ever used psychological distance to solve one of your own problems? How?

Any other tips for getting over the fear of taking action?

Mark McGuinness is a poet, a coach for creative professionals, and the host of The 21st Century Creative Podcast.

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  1. Hi Mark,

    This article couldn’t come at a better time 🙂

    I couldn’t agree more. Projecting future benefits is a great way to deal with present obstacles and pain.

    When you can picture yourself in a brighter place, stronger for the trials and tribulations, with ever growing perspective, the troubles of the day start to fade. Not disappear, but definitely take on a new shape.

    Thank you for such great insights! Your articles are some of the most uplifting I’ve ever come across. From one writer to another, you are very inspiring.



  2. Thanks Conor, we do our best and feedback like this makes it very worthwhile.

    Hope there are plenty of future benefits in store for you this week. 🙂

  3. Great article…and I have a friend I’m going to try your advice on (as well myself!).

    I know in my experience I have let things drift a little too long before ripping of the plaster and taking action, and I always have the same thinking afterwards, “why didn’t I do it sooner”.

    I think the future visualisation is particularly helpful, especially focusing on the benefits and triyng to lessen the emphasis on the obstacles. I also like the idea of exploring the options without necessarily being forced to act upon them.

    Have saved this and am going to look at it in detail with a brainstorming pen and paper later 🙂

  4. This is a really interesting article. It makes me think that maybe the reason we are so good at offering advice “From Afar” yet it’s so hard to offer/take advice when mired in situation is because when we are right up close to an event/situation/decision (or in it) we tend to drown the decision in emotion & ego. From a distance, it “isn’t happening” so there is no base emotional or ego involvement. But right in the soup, our ego kicks in to defend status quo and push back against new ideas, using everything from fear to emotion to anger to mire us in the past. Because at the end of the day, the ego’s main job is to say “whatever & wherever I am RIGHT NOW is exactly where I need to stay forever”. All of the excercises in this article are great, and I will try them. Also any practice you can do to create a spacious sense of being and understanding of how your own mind works is extremely helpful, such as meditation.

  5. Mark,

    This might be the best post ever at LA. Clear, deeply thought-out, and with a very sharp story to illustrate it. Well-done.

    My tip, which has seen me through a lot, is the old “What’s the worst that can happen?” trick. When you take it to absurd extremes, you realize that anything between what you have now and the building falls down because you dared to take some great new action that didn’t work out, is probably something you can handle.

    I think that is a way of distancing yourself. Rather than looking at imagined consequences right in front of you, you look at imagined absurdities farther away, to get the courage to plow through any smaller obstacles.



  6. Awesome post!!

    > Have you ever struggled to persuade someone of the value of an ‘obvious’ solution to their problem? If you succeeded, how did you do it?

    Sometimes I succeed by helping them step into the future and see how things might turn out if they take action. They’re like “Oh I get it now.. you’re right”.

    But very often they still don’t take action. When I ask them why they didn’t do it even though they knew the benefits, they say things like “Don’t know.. couldn’t get myself to do it” or “After sleeping a night it wasn’t so bad anymore” (and one or two weeks later the same cycle happens).

    > Have you ever used psychological distance to solve one of your own problems? How?

    Yes, I call that “playing the ball back and forth” and I do that with a close friend. I state my problem and we “play the ball back and forth” until I can distance myself from the problem and see the solution from both, my friend’s and my perspective.

    Another thing I like to do is doodling Prerequisite Trees from the Theory of Constraints. I translate my problem into a desired outcome, then map out obstacles that are in my way and then map solutions and courses of actions to those obstacles. And so on and so forth. 🙂

    It also gets me into a logical and rational state of mind. While drawing these trees, my negative emotions tend to wash off and I can focus even better on solving my problem and become very creative.

    I observed that on myself back in high school.. I found that solving my maths problems helped me get over sadness, heartache and frustrations.

    > Any other tips for getting over the fear of taking action?

    Hmm, asking yourself “If not now, when?”

    What also helps is visualizing yourself doing that scary stuff before you start doing it.

  7. This post is so spot-on. Just last week, I was thinking about how much easier it is for me to be creative and bold in coming up with marketing ideas for other companies … but not my own. I think you’ve shown me some tactics to try to get my creativity going in my own service. Thanks for this post, Mark!!

  8. Thanks everyone, great comments as usual.

    @ Amy – “why didn’t I do it sooner” = cognitive distancing in reverse. 🙂

    @ Jerry – Yep, life would be so much easier without an ego. 😉

    @ Kelly – Good point about the ‘worst that can happen’, I hadn’t thought of it as psychological distancing but I see what you mean.

    @ Oliver – Great examples. ‘Playing the ball back and forth’ sounds intriguing – what exactly do you do?

    @ Catherine – That reminds me of when I started making sales calls for myself as an independent – I’d done it for a partnership before and was surprised to find how much harder it was at first to sell myself than to sell a company (even my own company).

  9. Woo, I love when a blog post causes me to shift my paradigm of thinking!

    I never thought of visualizing a cool outcome as decreasing the psychological distance from the positive changes, and increasing the psychological distance from the painful choice or action you might need to take now.

    Ok, if you excuse me, now I have to go sit and ponder psychological distance. A lot.

  10. This is very cool. It reminds me of kind of jumping into another dimension. Ok, I know it sounds weird but hear me out for a sec.

    It’s more or less just a visualizing technique where we get the feelings of what we can have in a time when we already have it. Sounds like jumping into the future to me but nonetheless, this is some very powerful stuff.


  11. Vlad, Mike – Thanks, paradigm shifts and new dimensions are all part of the service round here. 🙂

  12. I always wished I could view my life from a distance. Living in this body and this life, full of its emotion and mental gyrations, it is sometimes difficult to get clarity.

    It is easier to help others because you are mostly free of the emotional attachment to the situation.

    But the opportunity to project into the future, review the movie of my life, may be just the thing to gain the insight I need.

    Thanks for the post.

  13. Hi Mark
    Great post. Just wanted to let you know that it’s in the running for the Post Of The Month thing I run over on Dead Fish:


    Good stuff.

  14. @ Sandra

    O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as others see us!
    Robert Burns

    @ Neil – Thanks!

  15. Now if I can just remove myself from my present? Um, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to learn to live in the moment, and now you’re telling me to step out of the moment, as an observer!?

    I’ve never done this – but certainly, in my coaching of others, it is usually pretty clear to me what the solutions are. Now I know why. I’m pretty sure this is why my journaling/blogging on the past is so enlightening – at least to me.

  16. Um, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to learn to live in the moment, and now you’re telling me to step out of the moment, as an observer!?

    Heh, doesn’t sound very Zen when you put it like that, does it? 🙂

    I think there’s a difference though between using dissociation with awareness, as a means of putting one’s own fears and desires into perspective, and doing it compulsively, as a distraction from the present moment.

  17. Priscilla says:

    Great article. Being an observer of a situation always helps sort out what actions should be taken to solve the problem.

    One of the things I’ve learned thats usefull in helping others is asking questions. Why do you feel this way? What was your initial motive? How would you rather this situation of turned out? Are you being honest with yourself? Being able to answer the questions usually aid the person into taking action in solving their problems. Most of the people I talk to thank me for helping them out, though really all I had to do was ask questions and on the occasion give my personal experiences.

    Of course there are still gonna be the few that can answer these questions and know what they want, but still not take action. May be due to fear, unsure of what the outcome will be, or sometimes the problem really isn’t as big as they thought it was and they can go into the situation with a different take on it.

  18. “How would you rather this situation of turned out?”

    That’s a key question for me – it gets people out of problem-mode and into solution-mode. Action gets a lot easier when you’re clear about what you want next…

  19. Hi! I enjoyed reading your article and it brings new light on the phrase ” Time heals all wounds”. Unfortunately an emotional reaction to a similar situation can trigger a person to re-live and experience past tragedies as if they are happening right now. I agree that distance can give us objectivity when approaching problems but I also think the adrenilin that surges through our bodies when confronted with serious problems is what inspires creative problem solving. I definitely agree the torrents of thoughts that cascade through our brains are eased by distraction and when upset and angry our creative thinking skills are lost and hard to retrieve until our wise mind kicks in, as you say, if we let it.

  20. Francis Porter says:

    A superb article and discussion thread, thank you. If you would like more tools/ways of asking questions to yourself and others which prompt psychological distance consider the use of ‘appreciate enquiry’.