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Need to Solve a Problem? Pretend You’re Someone Else.

When approaching a complex situation that requires a creative solution, some leading research points to a novel approach to problem solving. Don’t solve the problem based on how you would solve it, but instead pretend to be someone else and solve it from their perspective. Via BPS Digest:

According to Evan Polman and Kyle Emich, we’re more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. This is just the latest extension of research into construal level theory, an intriguing concept that suggests various aspects of psychological distance can affect our thinking style.

Across four studies involving hundreds of undergrads, Polman and Emich found…that participants were more likely to solve an escape-from-tower problem if they imagined someone else trapped in the tower, rather than themselves (a 66 vs. 48 per cent success rate). Briefly, the tower problem requires you to explain how a prisoner escaped the tower by cutting a rope that was only half as long as the tower was high. The solution is that he divided the rope lengthwise into two thinner strips and then tied them together.

The researchers were careful to consider a range of possible confounding factors, including confidence in our knowledge of ourselves versus others, emotional involvement and feelings of closeness. None of these made much difference to the main result. On the other hand, among participants who tackled the tower problem, it was those who said afterwards that they felt the tower was further away, who tended to have found the solution. This reinforces the researchers’ claim that solving a problem for a stranger is easier because of the feeling of psychological distance that it creates.

This concept could be particularly useful for those engaged in negations, mediation, arbitration, etc. By framing your position from the viewpoint of another person, it might be possible to arrive at a more creative solution. It could also be useful in anticipating or predicting what angle an opponent might be positioning towards. So next time you’re about to tackle a problem head on, take a moment to step into someone else’s shoes and think about what they would do to solve the problem, you might just get a different result.

Polman E, and Emich KJ (2011). Decisions for Others Are More Creative Than Decisions for the Self. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 21317316

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.


  1. I like this. I’m going to link to your post at my blog. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is really interesting, but I came to the opposite conclusion.  I think the most helpful application of this study is not to imagine yourself as someone else solving the problem, thinking about what “they” would do–but rather imagining the problem belonging to someone else, and solving it as yourself (who does not have the problem).

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