Cartoonist Saul Steinberg's View of the World from 9th Avenue

The Abstraction Method of Problem Solving

Everyone has heard the phrase, “losing sight of the forest for the trees.” The idea behind this metaphor is that when you are too close to something, you can get mired in the details and have difficulty focusing on the way those details fit together into a big picture.

During the past 10 years, psychologists Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman, and their colleagues have provided a lot of evidence for what they call “construal level theory:” The closer you are to an object or event, the more specifically you think about it. While the more distant you are to that object or event, the more abstractly you think about it. This idea has important implications for your creativity.

Every object or event in the world can be thought of in many ways. Take the four-legged beast you see walking down the street on a leash, it could be thought of as:

  • Fluffy the poodle who lives next door (very specific)
  • a French poodle (slightly less specific)
  • a dog (a bit more abstract)
  • an animal (more abstract)
  • a thing (very abstract)

This ability to think of things at different levels of specificity applies to events and goals as well. If you pick up the phone to call a client to try to make a sale, you could think of this very abstractly (engaging in a relationship), less abstractly (working on a sales call) or even quite specifically (holding the phone to your ear and talking).

The second half of construal level theory is that your tendency to think of something either abstractly or specifically depends on your distance from it. Distance can refer to physical distance, social distance, or even distance in time. For example, the classic New Yorker magazine cover of the New Yorker’s view of the world reflects this concept. In this cover, the island of Manhattan is shown in great detail, then there is a strip labeled New Jersey, and the rest of the country occupies about as much space as New Jersey does. That is, the more physically distance there is to an item, the fewer details you use to think about it.

Getting Distance

A similar thing happens with other kinds of distance. When you think about an event happening to yourself, you tend to focus on all of the details. The actions you have to take, the interactions you have with other people, the time it takes to make something happen. When you think about the same event happening to someone else, you focus more broadly on the outcomes without thinking about how it happened.

That is one reason why we believe so strongly that people’s abilities are the results of their talent. A great musician puts on a wonderful performance on stage. You focus on their clear ability to play their instrument, but you do not think about all of the years of practice that musician has put in to develop the skill displayed on stage. You ignore all of this work, because of the social distance between you and the musician on stage.

You focus on their clear ability to play their instrument, but you do not think about all of the years of practice that musician has put in to develop the skill displayed on stage.

Distance in time works the same way. When an event is far away in time, you focus on general characteristics like how much fun the event will be, or the reasons why you want to attend that event. As the event gets closer, though, you begin to think about all of the ways that event will interfere with your daily life. That is why you often agree to do things far in advance, and then regret agreeing to them in the moment.

If you are in a situation in which you need to display some creativity, you can use this relationship between distance and abstractness to your advantage:

CD Players, iPods, & Abstraction

Often, it is hard to come up with creative solutions to problems, because you get mired in the details of the problem you are solving. Those details will often lead you to think about solutions to the specific problems that arise, rather than rethinking the problem altogether. In the 1990s, for example, many companies created portable CD players people could carry with them as an evolution of the portable cassette tape players that preceded them. The difficulty with CD-players is that they would skip whenever the player got jostled.

Early on, people treated CD players as if they were like cassette players or record players, because those were the specific precursors to the portable CD player. Consequently, most of the early solutions to the problem of skipping CDs involved adding more shock absorption into the portable player. That would prevent the laser from losing its place on the disc. By thinking more abstractly about CD-players, though, people began to treat them as computer media rather than like cassettes or records. That shifted the solution to the problem of skipping from creating shock absorbers to reading ahead in the computer file and buffering the music. That is, thinking about the problem more abstractly changed the nature of the solutions to that problem.

Solving Problems

To help yourself think about a problem you are solving more abstractly, it is useful to give yourself some distance from that problem. There are several ways to create that distance. Imagine that you are solving the problem for someone else rather than for yourself. Think about what the solution to the problem will look like 5 years in the future rather than right now. Think about how people 1000 miles away might be conceptualizing the problem. Each of these methods helps to create some distance, and that can help you focus on the more abstract parts of the situation.

After you re-think the problem, though, it is important to focus on the details again. So, once you have an insight that changes the way you think about the problem, focus on it close up again. In that way, you can ensure that the solution you develop will also address the little things that can make the difference between success and failure.

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How about you?

Have you ever solved a tough problem by getting some distance? What happened?

More insights on: Creative Blocks

Art Markman

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Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His research explores the cognitive science of creativity, motivation, and decision making. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership.
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