Have you been given an exam question before asking you to recommend an intervention, an improvement, etc. to fictional people who were basically strangers? Well, those might be to your benefit.

Using several different tasks, Polman and Emich (2011) found greater levels of creativity and problem solving success resulting from asking participants to generate ideas for individuals who were not close to them rather than for individuals who were. What’s more, the lowest averages came from the group asked to complete the tasks for themselves. Similar effects may also be achieved by creating tasks that involve decision-making for future selves rather than the current selves (Polman and Emich, 2011; Pronin, Olivola & Kennedy, 2008), as people see their future selves as if they are another person (Pronin & Ross, 2006). Hence, ideas dedicated to distant others, including future selves, are better than ideas dedicated to those who are close to the individual, in particular if the individual is their current selves. This could mean that tasks that do not involve creating or making decisions for distant others produce less representative results of an individual’s true creative and problem solving skills.

Polman and Emich (2011) speculated that these results may partly be due to a tendency to expect more guilt if the wrong decision was made for another person than if it was made for one’s self. So to avoid this greater amount of guilt, better decisions and less risks were suggested to be made. However, findings studying this potential tendency were mixed as there were situations where individuals are more likely encourage others to take more risk than they, themselves, would (Beisswanger, Stone & Hupp & Allgaier, 2003). Nevertheless, those risk-taking decisions were still different from those made for one’s self. Moreover, brain scans have revealed that the brain system that has been theorised to bias people towards decisions to opt for more immediate rewards, rather than delayed but greater rewards, is less active during decision making for strangers and future selves (Albrecht, Volz, Sutter, Laibson & Cramon, 2010). Hence, people can think for strangers and future selves with less influence from this bias.

However, decisions made for others can still be influence by the same bias that can obscure potential errors of decisions made by the self (Jonas, Schulz-Hardt & Frey, 2005). Jonas, Schulz-Hardt & Frey (2005) found that recommendations made for others used a more balanced perceptive than when it was a decision made for others. This was due to the tendency during decision-making tasks to avoid conflicting information (Klayman & Ha, 1987). Hence, tasks asking people to make the decision for others are better than task completed for one’s self, but creating tasks that ask people to make recommendations for others may be even better.

In conclusion, simply asking people to be creative and/or solve problems may not be enough! With the addition of some words to a task description, people can be prompted to show their truer potential and those few words could be something along the lines of ‘what would you recommend for a stranger?’