5 Ways to Stimulate Broader Mental Representations

Abstract mindset and information processing is very important for creativity, and more broadly for mental flexibility and explorative thinking. The following five techniques are the most basic ways to stimulate abstract mindset and broader perspective on demand:

1. Why Restatements. Why restatements—continuously asking why you need to solve the problem or take some action—reliably lead to more abstract representations as they force you to focus on higher and higher goals.[1] The 5 Whys technique of problem solving is a well-known example of this approach traditionally used by organizations like Toyota and others. Also, asking about the broadest implications of the problem should do the similar trick. If your creative challenge concerns more some object rather than an action, you can think of higher categories to which your object belongs.[2] (For example, if you’re working on some smartwatch technology and want to stimulate abstract mindset, think of higher level categories to which it belongs—wireless handsets, portable devices, communication systems, and so on).

2. Positive Moods. Normally, positive moods promote global focus and negative moods promote local focus.[3] So when your challenge requires broader mental horizons, find something that will induce positive activating moods such as joy (e.g. watching a comedy usually does the trick for most participants in psychology experiments).

3. Power. Making ourselves feel powerful has both advantages and disadvantages. The downside is that power will distort our judgment in many ways, such as by leading us to ignore other people’s perspectives. Yet, one thing that power predictably does well is to broaden our perspectives so that we can see the forest for the trees.[4]

4. Psychological Distance. Greater psychological distance reliably stimulates more abstract thinking. This works with any of the four dimensions of psychological distance. (And the next post will discuss in more detail specifically the psychological distance and creative thinking.)

5. Abstract Language. The language we use shapes our thought (although the precise extent of this remains contentious). Therefore, it is only natural to expect that abstract language would lead to more abstract processing.[5] So when you need the broader perspective, try using more abstract language in the problem formulation, analysis of constraints, etc.


[1] Antonio L. Freitas, Peter Gollwitzer, and Yaacov Trope, The Influence of Abstract and Concrete Mindsets on Anticipating and Guiding Others’ Self-Regulatory Efforts, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 739–752 (2004). DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2004.04.003. This method for inducing abstract mindset has been used in at least 40 studies. See Michael Gilead, Nira Liberman, and Anat Maril, From Mind to Matter: Neural Correlates of Abstract and Concrete Mindsets, SCAN 9,638-645 (2014). DOI:10.1093/scan/nst031.

[2] Technically known as the Categories-Exemplars paradigm, it has been used in at least over 20 studies. See Michael Gilead, Nira Liberman, and Anat Maril, From Mind to Matter: Neural Correlates of Abstract and Concrete Mindsets, SCAN 9,638-645 (2014). DOI:10.1093/scan/nst031.

[3] Barbara L. Fredrickson and Christine Branigan, Positive Emotions Broaden the Scope of Attention and Thought-Action Repertoires, Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332 (2005). DOI:10.1080/02699930441000238.  Some research suggests that the relationship between positive or negative moods and global or locus focus is not fixed but variable, with positive moods empowering focus that is dominant, usually the global one. See Jeffrey R. Huntsinger, Gerald L. Clore, and Yoav Bar-Anan, Mood and Global-Local Focus: Priming a Local Focus Reverses the Link Between Mood and Global-Local Processing, Emotion, 10, 722-726 (2010). DOI: 10.1037/a0019356.

[4] Pamela K. Smith and Yaacov Trope, You Focus on the Forest When You’re in Charge of the Trees: Power Priming and Abstract Information Processing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 578 –596 (2006). DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.90.4.578.

[5] While there is plenty of indirect evidence on this point, there seems to be only one study that directly supports it. See Emiel Krahmer and Diederik Stapel, Abstract Language, Global Perception: How Language Shapes What We See, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 2009.

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