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There's a Better Way to Solve Your Problems

New research finds that distance can be the key to cracking your dilemmas.

It's easy to become rigidly fixed within a view of who you are (“This is just the way I am”), and to become unable to envision possibilities for expanding your personal capacities, thinking, and emotions outside of that fixed view. Unfortunately, this disables you from enlarging your perspective, which is necessary to solve conflicts or problems that you feel stuck inside of, or unable to change or alter.

President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly said that if you’re having difficulty understanding a problem and how to solve it, “enlarge” it. That applies to life beyond the battlefield or White House. That is, “enlarging” how you envision a problem or situation you’re stuck within can free you from the limitations of the perspective that imprisons you to begin with.

New empirical research demonstrates this, and shows that, in effect, distancing yourself from a problem or conflict enhances your reasoning, and helps you find new solutions through a broadened perspective. For a study reported in Psychological Science, Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo and Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan examined the ability to recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge, search for a compromise, consider the perspectives of others, and recognize the possible ways in which the scenario could unfold.

The research found that you may think about a conflict more wisely if you consider it as an outside observer would.

“These results are the first to demonstrate a new type of bias within ourselves when it comes to wise reasoning about an interpersonal relationship dilemma,” Grossmann says. “We call the bias 'Solomon’s Paradox,' after the king who was known for his wisdom, but who still failed at making personal decisions.”

In the experiments, Grossmann and Kross asked participants who reported being in monogamous romantic relationships to vividly imagine a scenario in which either their partner or a friend’s partner had been unfaithful. Then they were asked to answer a set of questions about the scenario. The results indicated that participants who were asked to reason about a friend’s relationship conflict reached wiser solutions than those who were asked to reason about their own relationship conflict.

The results of a second experiment supported those from the first: Participants who thought about their own relationship conflict, from a first-person perspective, displayed poorer reasoning than those who thought about a friend’s relationship conflict.

However, participants asked to take an outsider’s perspective on their own problems seemed to overcome this bias: Participants who were asked to think about their own relationship conflict as if through a friend’s eyes were just as wise as those who thought about a friend’s conflict.

According to the researchers, these findings suggest that distancing oneself from a personal problem by approaching it as an outsider could be the key to wise reasoning. “We are the first to demonstrate that there is a simple way to eliminate this bias in reasoning by talking about ourselves in the third person and using our name when reflecting on a relationship conflict,” Grossmann said. “When we employ this strategy, we are more likely to think wisely about an issue.”

I think this kind of research is useful, because it provides empirical underpinning to a psychological perspective emphasized in Eastern traditions in particular, that our conflicts in life reflect the limitations of our view of who we are—the “self” we have learned to define ourselves by—and the narrow perspective it encases us within. Stepping “outside” of ourselves expands our view of what we’re capable of, our thinking, and our emotional awareness. It broadens our view and understanding of reality.

And that’s a step toward greater wisdom.

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2014 Douglas LaBier