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Can We Better Predict Whether an Antidepressant Will Work? Do Status Symbols Help You Make New Friends? Enter the terms you wish to search for. Thinking Outside the Box: A Misguided Idea The truth behind the universal, but flawed, catchphrase for creativity. Although studying creativity is considered a legitimate scientific discipline nowadays, it is still a very young one. In the early 1970s, a psychologist named J. Guilford was one of the first academic researchers who dared to conduct a study of creativity.
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. 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. Management consultants 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. There seemed to be no end to the insights that could be offered under the banner of thinking outside the box. 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 research teams—Clarke Burnham with Kenneth Davis, and Joseph Alba with Robert Weisberg—ran 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 Guilford’s experiment. The second group was told that the solution required the lines to be drawn outside the imaginary box bordering the dot array. Would you like to guess the percentage of the participants in the second group who solved the puzzle correctly? What’s more, in statistical terms, this 5 percent improvement over the subjects of Guilford’s original study is insignificant. In other words, the difference could easily be due to what statisticians call sampling error.
Let’s 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 disseminated—and therefore, much more dangerous—metaphor 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 won’t find boxes. But you will find numerous situations where a creative breakthrough is staring you in the face.