Ever wonder why other people's problems seem easier to solve than your own? It may be that you're simply too close to your own problems.

What psychologists now refer to as the "outsider effect" may play an important role in our ability to solve problems creatively. 

Researchers at Indiana University recently wanted to explore how mentally distancing the imagination from the immediate context impacts creativity. They gave two different groups of undergraduate psychology students a creative generation exercise which they termed a "linguistic skills task": list as many examples of "modes of transportation" as they could think of. There was no time limit, the instructions emphasized that there were no right or wrong answers, and responses could be "as commonplace or as creative and out of the ordinary as you like."

Researchers randomly split the participants into two groups: "spatially distant" and "spatially near." The spatially distant group was told that the task was designed by students enrolled in an Indiana University-sponsored program called Study Abroad Program in Greece. The spatially near group was told that it was designed by local Indiana University, Indianapolis students.

This seemingly irrelevant twist made a world of difference: the group that was told the task originated in Greece generated significantly more, and more original, examples of transportation modes than did the group that was told the task originated nearby. "Furthermore," write the study authors, "relative to those who believed the generation task was from Indianapolis, participants exhibited greater cognitive flexibility when they believed that the task was from Greece."

In other words, those that imagined themselves in a distant and foreign land weren't limited by what they knew to be true of local transportation, and were free to list lorries, carriages, Vespas, and the like. Thinking about getting around Greece instead of about getting around Indianapolis opened their minds and invoked the outsider effect.

Distance makes the mind grow sharper.

The researchers concluded that even a minimal mentally distancing oneself from the source of the problem can have a dramatically positive influence on creative performance.

The challenge, of course, is how to invoke this outsider effect on a regular basis. Is there a simple technique or tactic we can turn to when the walls of our thinking box seem insurmountable?

The short answer is yes, based on a series of studies conducted at the University of Michigan Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory. In one study, researchers invoked stress and anxiety in one of the most powerful ways known to turn a challenge into a threat: public speaking in front of judges without sufficient time to prepare. In this case, college students had only five minutes to prepare and could not use notes. One group was told to use first-person pronouns to work through their stress; for example, "I shouldn't be so nervous," and "I will be fine." The other group was told to use their name or a third-person pronoun; for example, "Matt, don't be nervous," or "You'll do great." Not only did the judges find this group's performances to be more confident and persuasive, the participants themselves reported far less shame and rumination than the first-person group.

Flip your outsider switch.

The science behind this is interesting. As the researchers explain it, you flip a neurological switch in the brain when you toggle between the first person an the third. Using the third person engages the cerebral cortex, which is your center of thought. Using the first person engages the amygdala, which is where fear emotions reside. Flipping the switch moves you toward or away from your sense of self and its myriad emotional attachments. The greater the psychological distance, the more you self-control you have, in turn enabling you to think more clearly, objectively, and creatively.

The next time you experience thinker's block, take a step aside and try to imagine yourself as another person. Now give yourself a bit objective, helpful guidance, just as you would when solving a problem for someone else.

Published on: May 11, 2016