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Big Ideas

The Abstraction Method of Problem Solving

Need a boost of creativity? Get some distance.

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.

How about you?

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

More Posts by Art Markman

Comments (18)
  • Reggie

    This was very helpful. As a graphic designer, I easily tend to get caught up in the details prior to taking any action. This is a hinderance I can get past now thanks to some of the methods mentioned here.

  • James Mack

    Who ever is reading this testimony today should please celebrate with me and my family because it all started like a joke to some people and others said it was impossible.My name is james,CEO Udegbe Ventures and i live in Ghana.I am businss man and business was going real well till about 9year ago something terrible happen.i lost all my goods which i have imported from china,as time goes on i lost it even get food to eat was a problem and my wife packed out of my house because i was unable to take care of her and my kids at that particular time. i manage all through seven years, no wife to support me to take care of the children and there come a faithful day that i will never forget in my life i met an old friend who i explain all my difficulties to, and he took me to a spell caster and the name of the Temple is called, OGBONI spiritual temple, i was assure that everything will be fine and my wife will come back to me.after the wonderful works of DR.OGBONI,today i am back in business and even much bigger.if you must kwon am now one of the richest man in my country.i advice you if you facing any problem in life,just know that there is no problem without a solution for there is no problem too big for Dr OGBONI to solve,do contact him via email on
    LONG LIVE DR.OGBONI AND THE gods of his ancestors!!!

  • Stacey Bruno

    How i got my husband back.Am Stacey Bruno by name I never believed in love spells or magic until I met this spell caster once when i went to see my friend in Indian this year on a business summit. I meant a man who’s name is Dr ATILA he is really powerful and could help cast spells to bring back one’s gone, lost, misbehaving lover and magic money spell or spell for a good job or luck spell .I’m now happy & a living testimony cos the man i had wanted to marry left me 5 weeks before our wedding and my life was upside down cos our relationship has been on for 3years. I really loved him, but his mother was against us and he had no good paying job. So when i met this spell caster, i told him what happened and explained the situation of things to him. At first i was undecided,skeptical and doubtful, but i just gave it a try. And in 7 days when i returned to Canada, my boyfriend (now husband) called me by himself and came to me apologizing that everything had been settled with his mom and family and he got a new job interview so we should get married. I didn’t believe it cos the Dr ATILA only asked for my name and my boyfriends name and all i wanted him to do. Well we are happily married now and we are expecting our little kid, and my husband also got the new job and our lives became much better. His email is:

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