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Is Thinking Outside the Box The Wrong Approach?

Is Thinking Outside the Box The Wrong Approach?

Over the past few decades the concept of “thinking outside the box” to jumpstart the creative process has gained considerable attention and support.

Creativity traditionally connected extant ideas and built on the past to create something new.

New research evaluates the two approaches. That is, is it better to “think outside the box,” using unrelated concepts to get the creative juices flowing, or to build on something more closely related to the problem one is trying to solve?

In a paper published in Design Studies, University of Pittsburgh graduate student Joel Chan and his mentor Christian Schunn, Ph.D., along with Carnegie Mellon University’s Steven Dow, Ph.D., have collected surprising evidence that nearer is better.

“For people needing fresh inspiration for a problem, these findings imply that you shouldn’t just go off and talk to random people or read things totally unrelated to your problem,” said Chan, the lead author.

“These might yield novel ideas, but not necessarily … useful and novel ideas.”

Chan and Schunn collected data through OpenIDEO, a web-based crowdsourced innovation platform intended to help people address a wide range of social and environmental problems.

The diverse database includes content on issues ranging from human rights violations to job growth.

The team began collecting data from OpenIDEO’s “inspiration phase,” during which individuals posted descriptions of solutions to problems similar to those posited by new solution seekers.

Subsequent to the “inspiration phase,” contributors moved on to posting more concrete, increasingly detailed solutions to the specific problem at hand. Then, OpenIDEO experts created a shortlist of what they saw to be viable creative solutions to the problem.

“The process took up to 10 weeks. Other similar studies,” Chan said, “have looked at the creative process over a much shorter period of time.”

Also, he said, “in our study we had more than 350 participants and thousands of ideas. Creativity studies typically have many participants solve ‘toy’ problems or observe few participants solving real problems — in our study we had both, lending greater strength to our conclusions.”

The team collected its data at the conclusion of the OpenIDEO process. They then entered it into an algorithm to determine whether an idea was near to or far from the posted problem.

This algorithm was first vetted against human judgments and proved to be quite good at determining idea distance. Then, the outcomes of the model proved adept at predicting the OpenIDEO experts’ shortlist and found that the vast majority of ideas that made the list were closely related to the posted problem, Schunn says.

“Instead of seeing a bigger effect of far inspirations,” Chan says, “I saw that ideas built on source ideas more closely related to the problem tended to be selected more often.

“And I saw the same pattern across 12 very different problems — ranging from preventing human rights violations to fostering greater connectedness in urban communities to improving employment prospects for young people.”

Schunn added that “we chose to look at a variety of problems to find out if there is a consistent pattern, and there is. And we can use this algorithm as a tool for a variety of problems, to identify the ideas that are ‘close’ and direct people to look at them.”

In short, Chan said, “My overall theory is that creative ideas more often come from accumulating many small insights, stretching the boundaries just a bit at a time.”

Source: University of Pittsburgh

Thinking inside the box photo by shutterstock.

Is Thinking Outside the Box The Wrong Approach?

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Is Thinking Outside the Box The Wrong Approach?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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