The Creative Power of Thinking Outside Yourself

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New research suggests we generate more creative ideas for other people than for ourselves.

The hackneyed expression “thinking outside the box” is thought to come from the puzzle below. The idea is to try and join up all the dots using four straight lines or fewer without taking your pen off the paper or tracing over the same line twice.

The ‘box’ that the expression refers to is the implicit one formed in your mind by the dots. To get the solution you have to ignore this implicit box: you have to, as it were, think outside it. (If you’re stuck in the box, google the ‘nine dots’ puzzle for the solution.)

Puzzles like this challenge us to reach novel solutions by avoiding habitual ways of thinking. But as well as thinking outside the box, you can also try thinking outside yourself. Here’s another puzzle, one that reveals a fascinating aspect of creativity…

Imagine there’s a prisoner trying to escape from a high tower. All he has is a rope but it’s only half as long as the drop from the window. Still, he manages to escape from the tower by dividing the rope in half and tying it back together. How is that possible?

People were given slightly different versions of this test in a new study by Polman and Emich (2011). Half were given this version of the puzzle while the other half were told to imagine it was they themselves who were stuck in the tower, rather than an unnamed ‘prisoner’. Both groups then had to explain how the escape from the tower was possible.

What happened was that 66% of people got the answer right when told it was a nameless ‘prisoner’ who was stuck in the tower. But when told to imagine they were stuck in the tower themselves, only 48% got it right.

(The answer to the problem is: the rope is divided in half width-ways rather than length-ways. Then you can halve the width and double the length.)

In a second study, they tested the same thing in a different way. This time it was to see how creative people could be when they were thinking up gift ideas. People were asked to think up ideas for themselves or for other people. The other people were also divided into two categories. Some were people who were socially close and others were socially distant.

When the ideas were analysed, participants who were thinking up ideas for socially distant others were most creative. The other two conditions lagged behind.

The reason this happens is to do with the way the mind represents problems like this. When we think about a ‘nameless other’ or the prisoner in the high tower, our minds tend to think more abstractly. In an abstract frame it becomes easier to make creative leaps because we aren’t stuck thinking about concrete details.

So perhaps the old and tired expression “thinking outside the box” should be replaced with the new, evidence-based expression “thinking outside yourself”.

Photo credit: Silvia Pisani

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 23 May 2011

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License