We’ve all heard the expression “think outside the box,” but have you given much thought to lateral thinking, also called elastic thinking? It’s becoming increasingly common in job interviews to get the question, “give us an example of how you solved a problem using lateral thinking (more on that later). Most of society focuses on logical reasoning, but that’s not the only way to solve problems. If we ignore lateral thinking, we do so at our own risk. There is no comprehensive theory of creativity, but we do know that people tend to consider only familiar uses for objects. This is called functional fixedness. Lateral thinking teaches us to ignore the obvious and look for the unexpected. I’m worried that college departments are rushing to push students into developing a narrow area of specialty. What they should be doing is helping students sharpen their tools of thinking that can serve them in every area. Students must be taught to think before being taught what to think about.
The candle problem
The most famous example of this is the candle problem. Participants receive a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches and told to attach the candle to the wall. But it must be attached in a way that the wax doesn’t drip on the table below. Some people try to melt the candle to the wall or tack it to the wall somehow, neither of which work. Yet when the problem is presented with the tacks outside of their box, people are more likely to view the empty tack box as a potential candle holder. They then solve the problem by tacking the box to the wall and placing the candle inside, a solution most people failed to see when the tacks were inside the box.
When you examine an issue from unusual angles, you’re more likely to come up with innovative solutions. We know that vertical thinking moves one step at a time to reach a logical conclusion that can be implemented based on the information at hand. But what if you don’t have all the information? Can you still solve it? Yes, because lateral thinking emphasizes coming up with many unconventional, creative ideas without focusing on how to implement them. Both types of thinking (lateral and vertical) are needed, of course. Below are two classic examples of lateral thinking.
During WWII, statistician Abraham Wald helped the British decide where to add armor to their bombers by analyzing the returning aircraft. Wald recommended adding more armor to the places where there was no damage, which seemed counterintuitive! However, Wald realized his data came from bombers that survived and returned to England. Aircraft that were shot down over enemy territory were not part of his sample. The planes Wald examined showed where they could afford to be hit because they made it home. Said another way, the undamaged areas on the survivors showed where the lost planes must have been hit because the planes hit in those areas did not return from their missions. Now you can try to solve the next problem.
A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water, who instead pulls out a gun, cocks it, and points it at the man. The man thanks the bartender and walks out. Why did the man thank the bartender? Before you can solve this problem, you must find out what information is missing. It’s impossible to solve without asking questions to obtain the missing information. Did you find the answer? If not, here it is. The man is suffering from a bad case of hiccups and was hoping to cure it by drinking water. Once the bartender realized the man had the hiccups, he scared him to cure his hiccups. It worked, so the man thanked the bartender and left.
Edward de Bono, the psychologist who developed the concept of lateral thinking, believes the brain thinks in two stages: a perceiving step, where the brain identifies a particular pattern, and a step that uses this pattern to reach a conclusion. De Bono also developed four methods to learn how to think laterally. De Bono describes them in his paper “Information Processing and New Ideas — Lateral and Vertical Thinking (see below)”
“Being aware of the way the brain processes information is the first step to improving the lateral thinking process. It’s important to recognize the brain’s tendency to rely on established patterns of thinking before starting to work on a new problem.”
“Often, when we’re trying to think about some issue, we shut out all outside stimuli so we can focus. However, allowing unplanned, outside stimuli can disrupt our reliance on imperfect frameworks. Paying attention to randomness can propel our thinking to new insights.”
“If there is an apparently suitable solution to a problem, it can be useful to set it aside and deliberately consider alternative approaches, regardless of how ridiculous they might seem. Doing so will help you to consider a problem from all possible angles.”
“This technique consists of the deliberate alteration of available options, like doing the opposite of an implied direction or reversing any relationship between elements of the problem. This can include denying elements that are taken for granted, breaking large patterns down into tiny fragments, or translating a relationship to an analogy and then translating it back again just to see what changed. Arbitrarily altering elements of the problem space can produce novel tools to build a solution with.”
Job interview question
I said in the beginning that questions about lateral thinking were becoming increasingly common receive in job interviews, such as “Can you give us an example of a difficult situation where you had to think laterally to get out of it?” This is really two questions. First, you need to come up with an example of a difficult problem, and then you must explain how you used lateral thinking to come up with a solution. Your prospective employers are really asking you several things: can you think innovatively; can you come up with creative solutions; and can you cope with a challenge where the answer isn’t immediately apparent without panicking? The solution is to look for deep structural similarities to current problems in different ones, and that requires switching mindsets from narrow to broad. The good thing about lateral thinking is that there is usually more than one answer to problems that must be solved creatively.