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Solving problems by thinking from a distance

Filed in Research News
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Decision Science News has nothing against a good word problem. Heck, there would be no field of Judgment and Decision Making if it weren’t for Kahneman & Tversky’s word problems.

Here’s one

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?

This problem was given to students in Indiana. One group was told that this problem and others like it were devised in Indiana. A second group was told that the problems were created in a research institute located in California, “around 2,000 miles away”. A third group was told bubkis. Remarkably, the group told that the problems were created far away managed to solve more of them.

(Spoiler alert: DSN is about to give the answer. Don’t look down if you want to figure it out
… the prisoner split the rope in half lengthwise).

Taking a distant perspective works, and it’s not just that people will think harder when you evoke California. A recent paper shows how in this example and others, looking at things from a distance facilitates problem solving. You can read all about it in Scientific American online.


  1. Bryon Sutherland says:

    The riddle was so obvious I didn’t even think I’d gotten to the challenge. Were people really stumped by this?

    November 5, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  2. Arjan Haring says:

    As lecturer on creative problem solving I have to say this is indeed not the most challenging problem. We have better.

    But the fact stays the same, would love to try this out with my students.

    Thanks for this nice insight once again.


    November 6, 2009 @ 6:59 am

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