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How to Think Outside The Box by Philip Hesketh


Puzzles like this challenge us to reach novel solutions by avoiding habitual ways of thinking. Henry Ford thought outside the box when he solved the problem of horses being too slow a mode of transport. Instead of trying to make the horses go faster he invented a much better form of horse power altogether.

But how do you do it? How DO you think outside the box?

Well the answer comes from research by Evan Polman of New York University and Kyle Emich of Cornell. Their studies suggest that you not only have to think outside the box but also think outside yourself.

Let me explain by way of another puzzle. Imagine a prisoner is trying to escape from a high tower. To help you visualise the scene let's suppose it's Quasimodo and he's really got the hump this time. Esmerelda has just had her hair cut short for a wedding so instead she throws him a rope that is only half as long as the drop from the window. Owing to his bad back, he doesn't want to free fall the rest of the way, so he has to think outside the box. Not generally noted for his intelligence, his solution is to cut the rope in half and tie it together again. Surely this would make it slightly shorter, not longer? Miraculously it works. But how?

The answer is that he cuts the rope width ways instead of length ways to create a piece of rope that is now the correct size. Naturally, it's no longer strong enough to take his weight but let's not dwell on that. Unless he doesn't have the hump any more.
However, here's the most revealing part of the study. The group who were asked to solve the problem of a 'prisoner' in a tower fared much better at working out the solution than the group who were told to imagine that they themselves were stuck in the tower. In other words, the people who thought outside themselves found it much easier to come up with a creative solution.

A follow up study asking people to come up with ideas for gifts confirmed this theory. This time people were asked to come up with creative presents for three sets of people: themselves, their close friends, and people that they didn't know particularly well. The results showed that the most creative gifts were almost always for the people they hardly knew.

This is due to the way the mind represents problems like this. When we think about a 'nameless other' or an anonymous prisoner in a high tower, our minds tend to think more abstractly. And in an abstract frame it becomes easier to make creative leaps because we don't get bogged down by concrete details. Perhaps the tired old expression 'thinking outside the box' should be replaced with the new, evidence-based expression 'thinking outside yourself'.

So when you next have a problem to solve, don't dwell on your situation; imagine a similar but unrelated business and apply your thoughts to that.