The Role of Psychological Distance in Creativity and Innovation by Nav Dhami from The Laughing Buddha

The Laughing Buddha

The Role of Psychological Distance in Creativity and Innovation

by Nav Dhami

Recently, I came across an interesting article that discussed a new addition to the 20th century theories that have fatally wounded the “Brainy Demon”. This cerebral ogre referred to here was hypothesised by the great 17th-century French mathematician and astronomer, Pierre-Simon Laplace.

Laplace, an ardent believer in causal determinism, in 1814 proposed a super-intelligent entity that would be able to see the entire course of events in the Universe, across all time, if it were given the precise location and momentum of every particle in the Universe. But causal determinism was seriously undermined in the 1920s and 30s, first by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and then by Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems of mathematical logic. Later, British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing dealt another blow when he showed that it is impossible to determine when a computer algorithm is going to halt. Now, David H. Wolpert of the NASA Ames Research Center has come up with a far more general result, which suggests that there are insurmountable limits on what we can know of a physical system’s past, present or future state as long as we are a part of that physical system.

I was intrigued if Wolpert’s research in theoretical mathematics had any echoes in the processes that drive creativity and innovation, a field in which I have a keen interest.

Many innovation teams that I know of tend to use the technique of “immersion”, including proximately and intensely experiencing, gathering information about and brainstorming on potential innovation with a direct focus on their business domain – reminiscent of Wolpert’s closed physical system – with some spillover into adjacent domains. Could it be that this approach, comparable to staring at something up-close for a prolonged period of time, restricts – or even distorts – their ability to locate or recognise creative answers that would eventually lead to innovation?

In an ancient analogy with Wolpert’s paper, Plato, in the second section of his Timaeus, stresses that the world we experience (the world of Becoming) is explained only in terms of something outside it (the world of Forms). Interestingly, Plato was also a proponent of the romantic concept of the Muses, who spark creativity and discovery from the distance of a metaphorical Olympus. (The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges concurred with Plato’s thoughts on creativity: “I prefer the Platonic idea of the Muse to that of [Edgar Allen] Poe, who reasoned, or feigned to reason, that the writing of a poem is an act of the intelligence.”)

In recent research on ways to increase creativity by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University, I found parallels with Wolpert’s findings in physical systems. Jia et al suggest that creativity can be enhanced by increasing participants’ psychological distance from the problem to be addressed. Construal Level Theory (CLT) describes psychological distance as a state in which the mental representation of things is more abstract – sort of like seeing a larger picture of the thing and its surroundings from a distance, rather than being “in” the picture, with less immediate or urgent implications for the “observer.” Both temporal and spatial psychological distance were seen to boost creativity – participants were able to come up with much more insightful answers when the problems they were asked to address were ostensibly in a distant geographical location, or were said to occur far into the future. Jia et al have suggested that teams looking to spark greater creativity would benefit if individuals were asked to imagine themselves as being in a different time or place when hunting for innovative solutions to problems, or if they communicated with individuals from completely different backgrounds or areas of interest. Speculatively, examples might include participants in an exercise to come up with creative solutions to Sydney’s transport problem imagining themselves to be visitors from an exoplanet, or as time-travelers from an ancient Maya kingdom. And, perhaps, master sculptors from Carrara being invited to consider the problem of plugging leaking oil wells a mile underwater.

Why is this so? There is both recent and older research that suggests answers as to why psychological distance has a beneficial effect on creativity, and some of this is reviewed below in light of this new study. Also explored are implications for some other recent research.

Psychological Distance Increases Creativity

Dopamine surge

Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that when novelty is encountered, the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine has been found to signal to the brain that “it is now time to start learning what is going on,” Poldrack says, and it also plays a role in boosting motivation.

It may not be wrong to speculate that when psychological distance is achieved (or is present in the case of someone from a different domain/area of interest who has been invited to look for a creative solution), the “thing” targeted for creative insight appears quite novel, or at least the sense of novelty is elevated. In light of Poldrack’s research, dopamine may be involved in this situation, prompting the “psychologically distant” observer to “start learning what is going on.”

Love and Global Processing

A separate study conducted by psychologists Jens Forster, Kai Epstude and Amina Ozelsel at the University of Amsterdam found that being in love makes us think more “globally” – psychological distance again – and boosts our ability to achieve creative insights into problems. (Feelings of sex, on the other hand, were found to make us think more “locally” – i.e., to increase psychological proximity and promote analytical thinking, as opposed to creative thinking). More later on how this “global” perspective – which “makes us see the forest rather than the individual trees” – is important.

Peace and Slowness

Researchers such as neurologist Kenneth Heilman at the University of Florida have found that a state of relative peace may enable the brain to step away from conventional, habitual responses. (An example cited is that of Isaac Newton, who was relaxing under the apple tree when he saw an apple fall and had an “aha!” insight into gravity). Another scientist, Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico, has used Magnetic Resonance Imaging to map subjects’ brains when they were prompted to think creatively. Dr Jung found that the brains of subjects focusing on creativity under the test conditions were slower, going off into “lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.”

These studies by Dr Heilman and Dr Jung point to a link between the creative process and the relative “peace” achieved when psychological distance causes the feeling – real or illusory – in the participant that, on account of this distance (spatial, temporal, or brought about by the fact that the participant may not be a member of that “innovation team” at all), they are disassociated from any adverse consequences of failing to come up with creative insights, or coming up with the wrong insights. This attenuation of anxiety may better enable the participant’s brain to meander creatively. The positive effects of relatively peaceful solo reflection on the creative process, and the dubious benefits of traditional techniques such as brainstorming, have also been observed by Arthur Markman and Kristin Wood of the University of Texas at Austin in their book, Tools for Innovation. Markman and Wood state that “brainstorming techniques are typically inefficient, and they often lead to fewer ideas than would be generated had the group members worked alone… While it is certainly important that group members feel free to contribute ideas without fear of criticism, these rules alone are not sufficient to lead people to generate creative ideas. “

This also suggests that the creative process may need to be freed from immediate “value”, as this would cause pressures that detract from the “peaceful” mental state described above as amenable to the creativity. (Leonardo Da Vinci’s detailed designs for helicopters and the precursors of cars were no less creative despite having no immediate “value” during his lifetime). It may be appropriate to wait for the complete output of any creative exercise before starting the process of innovation on potential products/services (innovation is applied creativity). This process may involve researching how such a product/service potential consumers would best identify with and easily slot into their familiar universe, avoiding, for example, the “orphan” fate of the Segway, or that of the creative fecundity of Xerox PARC, including the first personal computer, which they failed to commercialise. This requires further elaboration and discussion of recent studies that are beyond the scope of this article.

The Economic Web of Complements/Substitutes

In an important article in Scientific American, titled “The Evolving Web of Future Wealth”, complexity researcher Stuart Kauffman and his colleagues, Stefan Thurner and Rudolph Hanel, have proposed that one of the ways in which innovation happens is when connections are unexpectedly discovered in the “economic web” — the vast structure of 10+ billion goods and services in the economy. According to this thesis, this moving, shifting economic labyrinth contains goods/services that may be substitutes or complements, and — if and when these connections are discovered — creative recombinations/substitutions may result in new goods/services that would further expand the economic web, creating a new “halo” of potential goods/services. A salient example here is Apple’s iPhone, which, by creatively recombining existing technologies from the economic web into a new product has generated an economic sub-web around itself of new products and services, including the wildly successful industry of “Apps” for mobile devices. Another innovation, this time one that creatively uses a fact discovered in ancient times, is that of Robert Knuesel, Heiko Jacobs and their team at the University of Minnesota using the “enmity” of water and oil, known since time immemorial, in engineering self-assembling solar cells on a nanotechnology scale. (Again, a parallel is found here with Wolpert’s thesis on the limits of knowledge: Kauffman et al assert that, contrary to the assumptions of contemporary economic theory, all goods/services and their existing or potential connections in the economic web cannot be known or “pre-stated”, as novelties are constantly appearing in the economic web. This, they suggest, has consequences for traditional five-year plans.)

Psychological distance, especially when achieved through the involvement of individuals from diverse fields ostensibly distant from the domain in which the “thing” that is the focus of the creativity exercise exists, would allow a much larger part of the vast economic web to be visible – akin to stepping back from an individual tree to be able to see the whole forest in all its diversity. This larger view, possible because individuals with different backgrounds carry with them knowledge of other parts of the economic web, would significantly increase the opportunity to discover unexpected complements/substitutes among the myriad of “nodes” in the economic web, facilitating creative recombinations or useful substitutions.

Schumpeter’s “specially gifted pioneers”

In his 1934 book Theory of Economic Development, Joseph Schumpeter suggested that innovations rely on big discontinuous leaps in technology and organisation, and the start of a boom has to rely on the efforts of a few, specially gifted pioneers.

It is possible that because those “gifted pioneers” were not yet compartmentalised “specialists” in their particular new niche, and were therefore – by virtue their “Psychologically Distant” backgrounds – better placed to make unexpected and innovative connections in the economic web of complements/substitutes than the constrained, “Psychologically Near” specialists who would follow them later within that new niche/sector.

Pre-1980s conglomerates and innovation

In the era preceding the information and communications revolution in the last quarter of the 20th century, innovation was largely the preserve of the large conglomerates that dominated global business, as prominent economists such as J.K. Galbraith and A. Hunter have pointed out. It can be reasonably speculated that the diverse nature of these conglomerates allowed individuals from very different backgrounds within the organisation (Psychological Distance again) to interact and find complements/substitutes within the conglomerate’s part of the economic web. (One standout example is that of the ubiquitous Post-It notes invented at the sprawling conglomerate 3M: the weak adhesive was invented in one division of the company, which found no use for it until individuals from another division found a complementary use in little slips of paper that people could stick temporarily almost anywhere to remind themselves of things).

But the information and communications revolution has allowed smaller organisations and even individuals to tap diverse insights and opinions by communicating with people from both similar and different backgrounds, helping drive creativity and innovation. This mechanism, and especially the role of individuals from different backgrounds, may need to be better recognised and incorporated by businesses into their creativity and innovation processes.

Implications for “Dialectical Bootstrapping”

The role of psychological distance in innovation may also have important implications for Dialectical Bootstrapping.

As Stefan Herzog and Ralph Hertwig of the University of Basel remind us in their seminal 2009 paper, it has been known for some time that “the average quantitative estimate of a group of individuals is consistently more accurate than the typical estimate, and is sometimes even the best estimate” – the so-called “wisdom of crowds”. But Herzog and Hertwig found that this same effect can be replicated to a significant degree by asking the individual to have another think – unlocking the “crowd within” – albeit after giving the individuals suggestions on how to reconsider the original question from a different perspective (which recalls the phrase “to pull oneself up by the bootstraps” – hence “dialectical bootstrapping”). The effect that psychological distance has in boosting creative insight suggests that inducing temporal and/or spatial psychological distance may further improve results by better using the “crowd within” in dialectical bootstrapping.


The review of contemporary and older literature on creativity and innovation, above, suggests that induced and/or facilitated psychological distance may have an important role to play in driving improvements in creativity and innovation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, in addition to being a towering philosopher and logician was also the scion of one of Europe’s most successful business families, said: “always take flight to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one.”

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