Today I read an interesting article about a piece of research carried out by Polman and Emich that demonstrates people are more creative for others than for themselves.

In one of four studies, people were asked to imagine a prisoner locked away in a high tower. All he has available to help him escape is a rope that is only half as long as the drop from the tower’s window. Even so, he still manages to escape from the tower by dividing the rope in half and tying it back together. How is that possible?

Participants in this study were given two different versions of this puzzle. Half of them were given this version, while the other half were told to imagine it was they themselves who were imprisoned in the tower. Both groups then had to explain how the escape was made.

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

The reason this happens can be explained by how the mind represents problems such as this. When we think about someone else in the high tower, our minds tend to think more abstractly. In this abstract mode, creative leaps become easier to make as we aren’t confined by our own reality.

Try it out next time you have a problem to solve. Don’t seek to solve it as ‘you’. Instead, ask how some nameless character would solve it and notice the new possibilities that emerge.

Oh, you want to know the answer?

Well here it is: the rope is divided in half width-ways rather than length-ways. Then you can halve the width and double the length.