Thinking Outside the Box A Misguided Ia

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Although studyingcreativityis considered a legitimate scientificdisciplinenowadays, it is still a very young one. In the early 1970s, a psychologist named J. P. Guilford was one of the first academic researchers who dared to conduct a study of creativity. One of Guilfords most famous studies was the nine-dot puzzle. He challenged research subjects to connect all nine dots using just four straight lines without lifting their pencils from the page. Today many people are familiar with this puzzle and its solution. In the 1970s, however, very few were even aware of its existence, even though it had been around for almost a century.

If you have tried solving this puzzle, you can confirm that your first attempts usually involve sketching lines inside the imaginary square. The correct solution, however, requires you to draw lines that extend beyond the area defined by the dots.

At the first stages, all the participants in Guilfords original study censored their own thinking by limiting the possible solutions to those within the imaginary square (even those who eventually solved the puzzle). Even though they werent instructed to restrain themselves from considering such a solution, they were unable to see the white space beyond the squares boundaries. Only 20 percent managed to break out of the illusory confinement and continue their lines in the white space surrounding the dots.

The symmetry, the beautiful simplicity of the solution, and the fact that 80 percent of the participants were effectively blinded by the boundaries of the square led Guilford and the readers of his books to leap to the sweeping conclusion that creativity requires you to go outside the box. The idea went viral (via 1970s-era media and word of mouth, of course). Overnight, it seemed that creativity gurus everywhere were teaching managers how to think outside the box.

Managementconsultants in the 1970s and 1980s even used this puzzle when making sales pitches to prospective clients. Because the solution is, in hindsight, deceptively simple, clients tended to admit they should have thought of it themselves. Because they hadnt, they were obviously not as creative or smart as they had previously thought, and needed to call in creative experts. Or so their consultants would have them believe.

The nine-dot puzzle and the phrase thinking outside the box became metaphors for creativity and spread like wildfire inmarketing, management, psychology, the creative arts, engineering, and personal improvement circles. There seemed to be no end to the insights that could be offered under the banner of thinking outside the box. Speakers, trainers, training program developers, organizational consultants, and university professors all had much to say about the vast benefits of outside-the-box thinking. It was an appealing and apparently convincing message.

Indeed, the concept enjoyed such strong popularity and intuitive appeal that no one bothered to check the facts. No one, that is, before two different researchteamsClarke Burnham with Kenneth Davis, and Joseph Alba with Robert Weisbergran another experiment using the same puzzle but a different research procedure.

Both teams followed the same protocol of dividing participants into two groups. The first group was given the same instructions as the participants in Guilfords experiment. The second group was told that the solution required the lines to be drawn outside the imaginary box bordering the dot array. In other words, the trick was revealed in advance. Would you like to guess the percentage of the participants in the second group who solved the puzzle correctly? Most people assume that 60 percent to 90 percent of the group given the clue would solve the puzzle easily. In fact, only a meager 25 percent did.

Whats more, in statistical terms, this 5 percent improvement over the subjects of Guilfords original study is insignificant. In other words, the difference could easily be due to what statisticians call sampling error.

Lets look a little more closely at these surprising results. Solving this problem requires people to literally think outside the box. Yet participants performance was not improved even when they were given specific instructions to do so. That is, direct and explicit instructions to think outside the box did not help.

That this advice is useless when actually trying to solve a problem involving a real box should effectively have killed off the much widely disseminatedand therefore, much more dangerousmetaphor that out-of-the-box thinking spurs creativity. After all, with one simple yet brilliant experiment, researchers had proven that the conceptual link between thinking outside the box and creativity was a myth.

Of course, in real life you wont find boxes. But you will find numerous situations where a creative breakthrough is staring you in the face. They are much more common than you probably think.

*FromInside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results

There are many theories of creativity. What the latest experiment proves is not that creativity lacks any association to thinking outside-the-box, but that such is not conditioned by acquired knowledge, i.e., environmental concerns. For example, there have been some theories such as those of Schopenhauer (see his remarks about Genius) and Freud (see his remarks about Sublimation) that propose creativity is something more like a capacity provided by nature rather than one acquired or learned from the environment. Rather than disproving the myth, in other words, the experiment might instead offer evidence that creativity is an ability that one is born with, or born lacking, hence why information from the environment didnt impact the results at all. Its an interesting experiment, but the authors conclusion cannot possibly follow from the results of it.

your conclusion: that the second experiment disproves the theory that thinking outside the box is useful in solving problems, is itself a fallacy.

it only proved that telling someone to think out side the box is, in most cases, ineffective.

thinking outside the box is, as are most worthwhile pursuits, more easily said, than done.

Thats pretty much what I argued in my comment 🙂

Thanks for finally writing about Add new comment Psychology Today Nitridex

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Submitted by Anonymous on February 6, 2014 – 10:05pm

yes – more or less; and had i seen your comment, previous to writing mine, i may not have bothered. but it hadnt yet posted…

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Thanks for finally writing about Add new comment Psychology Today

I conduct soft skills training and outbound training for Corporates and individuals . To enhance creativity we motivate the participants to approach the problems from variety of vantage points . Even repeatedly checking the boundary conditions we are able to come up with variety of ways of solving the problem . This is akin to checking the walls of the box . Looking inside the box for additional information , additional resources also helps . Looking at the box from birds eye view triggers some different creative solutions . Let us not get tied down to the mechanics but free ourselves to find the solution . I will give an example . You are playing football with family and friends at a distant ground and someone gets bruised badly . No first aid kit is available . Your priority is to get the person to a hospital ( at a distance of 2 hours ) . The wound is bleeding and needs to be kept clean and bacteria free till the person reaches the hospital . What will you do ? Think of a solution . It is quite close to you .

With all due respect, Professor Boyd, your argument is not at all compelling. It seems that you are taking the thinking outside the box (TOTB) metaphor much more literally than it is intended (or, at least, as I and may others infer). Let me point out a few false and/or negligent statements that you make:

1. To refer to TOTB as dangerous is naive, at best. I, personally, have seen the positive, tranformative effects of not only the 9-dots exercise, but also the occasional use of the term to remind individuals after-the-fact about the value of thinking differently.

2. The experiment you refer to doesnt even come close to proving what you suggest that it does. To use the term proving in an argument like this is laughable.

3. In real life, you absolutely WILL find boxes…that is, if you understand what the term box refers to. Here, the term is not literal; rather, it refers to a mindset, a perspective, a belief, or an assumption. It is precisely how the human mind works. We all think in boxes all the time. The sin, if you will, is not in thinking inside of a box…but the neglect to readily switch from one box to another, nimbly (see Alan Inys new book, Thinking in New Boxes).

A different — and very healthy, positive, and productive — way to think about TOTB is to understand that it merely represents an insight that can remind an individual to consciously become aware of limiting assumptions. And, upon such awareness, to open ones mind and imagination to actively explore new possibilities beyond the obvious or initial answer. If you dont regard this as valid contribution to creativity, then I suggest you consider spending a bit more time outside of that box that youve presented here.

I couldnt have said it any better… TOTB is a beautiful skill to have. We are born into multiple boxes that are created upon social agreements (e.g. illustrated by the hermeneutic circle) but the ones who dare to think outside of what is considered as social or scientific correct (all the boxes together) are the minds whom are absolute free and open towards new moralities, paradigms, innovations and creativity in general. Saying that TOTB is a negative thing is a very conservative statement and someone who has such a belief is scared of change, scared of diversity and scared of anything that is abstract and out of order.

Im all about TOTB and the best way to TOTB is to fully understand the box in the first place and why some people are scared of TOTB hence also lacking the ability to do so.

I think much of which is vaguely labeled creative thinking is actually the result of healthy skepticism. We should make a habit of challenging conventional wisdom and the way things have always been done. On encountering the conventional approach, our attitude should be doubtful: Well, that might be right, but I will have to think about it.

Nine dots. Fold the paper so all the dots ovelap. Use four lines to connect four dots. Hold the folded paper up to the light….all dots connected; Thinking outside The Box.

For that matter, you could fold the paper until all the dots overlapped and you would not need to waste any pencil lead; Thinking outside The Box.

Use a very wide pencil lead or charcoal block for that matter, connect all the dots in one fell swoop; Thinking outside The Box.

Forego a pencil altogether and use a bucket of paint to create a huge blot over all the dots; Thinking outside The Box.

Question the dots and why they need to be connected in the first place; Thinking outside The Box.

Erase the dots; they are a distraction to Thinking outside The Box. Create your own dots and lines in any fashion you desire; Thinking outside The Box.

People that say, its a misguided idea,, do not know how to think outside the box, I can look /listen/ at anything an tell you how to fix it. I play chess with my pc, an beat it all the time, and the reasoning is I do not think logically, like the pc does . it has a set of rules that it was programed with an you were in college, I do not play by the rules, I can play without the queen.Also when you go the a school that teaches how to think about something, that is all you know how to do.I have had engineers come to my deck, hand me a set of blueprints, because that was the way they were taught. They are never taught to look at it, in there mind to see it working. What I do is show them how wrong they are, an ask them what tool in the world can cut a square hole inside the middle of two long tubes. they can not think outside the box, that they were taught to do.

If was going to tell you about an airplane the TR-3B, it travels a little bit under light speed, an it uses nuclear fusion, which turns into plasma an powers the craft, that was built outside the box. an if you do not believe me type it into your search engine, you can also look it up at the library of congress under new patients. You my brother, do not have the inkling of understanding to think outside the box. thats why you are a psychologist an nothing more.

help me a pedophile ring destroyed my life, my name is Justin Paul Buckley, I live in Adelaide, my life has been ruined, hearing voices of harmful people communicate everyday

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