I just read an article on the Scientific American website called “An Easy Way to Increase Creativity. The article correctly points out that creativity has a great deal to do with context and outside factors influencing the individual. If you can identify the factors that increase creativity you might be able to increase your chances of finding creative solutions.
The article points out that one factor contributing to creativity is “psychological distance” which they define as ” anything that we do not experience as occurring now or here. In other words, if you can take yourself out of your current mindset you will be more likely to think creatively. That isn’t groundbreaking research, but it is interesting nevertheless.
Unfortunately, the article ends with some terrible advice when it comes to the practical application of the scientific studies. The article says,
“…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.”
I think that is a pretty bad summary of some relatively intriguing research. Let me take it one point at a time.
1. Travel to faraway places.
This suggestion completely misses the point of the scientific research. Traveling to a faraway place is not the same as “psychological distance.” The point is to get your mind thinking differently, not to actually travel. Granted, a trip to a foreign country might inspire you, but traveling alone isn’t going to make you more creative.
2. Think about the distant future.
In the study, people are asked to think about themselves a year from now. Then they are asked to think of themselves solving an insight problem. This is a much more subtle way to think about a question than just saying, “Imagine how you would solve this problem in the distant future.” I guarantee if the question was phrased like that the answers wouldn’t be creative they would just involve people in silver suits and flying cars. That isn’t creativity, sorry.
3. Communicate with people who are dissimilar to you.
First of all, I can’t see where this suggestion is getting pulled from anywhere in the article. Maybe this one is just phrased badly. If it said “collaborate with people outside your normal circles,” it wouldn’t sound so bad. It feels condescending to me for some reason to assume that I would be surrounded by clones of myself.
4. Consider unlikely alternatives to reality.
Creativity requires that you do more than consider alternatives. You need to throw reality out the window and live there for a while. If the answer was reality then you wouldn’t need to be creative in the first place. I think it is funny that they added the word “unlikely” to that sentence to make it a little more redundant. I feel like this is saying “consider the unlikely, then get back to reality where you are more comfortable anyway.” Good luck with that.
The next sentence in the article says,
“Perhaps the modern environment, with its increased access to people, sights, music, and food from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly.”
The result of our modern times is that creative thinking is increasingly rare. The research cited shows that by default most people find it hard to think about problems from anything but a very literal point of view. They have to be “tricked” into being creative with scenarios that inject psychological distance into the question. More music, food, people, and vacationing isn’t going to make you more creative.