Lateral thinking problems are evil

One bane of working in the field of creativity is the curse of certain ‘lateral thinking’ problems like the nine dots you have to join up without your pen leaving the paper or the paragraph were you have to count the occurrence of the letter ‘f’. Very few people manage to solve these problems and they seem to serve only as examples to prove how stupid we all are, especially as once the obvious answers are pointed out, we’re kicking ourselves that we couldn’t think ‘out of the box’ enough to spot it.

Although interesting and sometimes fun to do, these exercises have little connection with enhancing your creativity. Try this one that circulated on the internet recently:

“I am only sending this to my smart friends. Can you figure out what these words have in common – Banana, Dresser, Grammar, Potato, Revive, Uneven, Assess. You will kick yourself when you discover the answer. Go back, look at them again and think hard.”

The tedious answer is that in all of the words listed if you take the first letter, place it at the end of the word and then spell the word backwards it will be the same word. Did you get it? Probably not. These tests in no way reflect your intelligence or your creativity. There is no evidence to suggest that becoming good at them in any way increases your creative output. In fact, highly creative individuals, those who actually do produce great creative works or ideas, are no better than average on these tests. Being good at these problems means that you will now be better at that particular problem (obviously as you now know the answer). These ‘problems’ are worthless and the reason is that they aren’t about anything. They have little or no meaning. If you failed on the word test above you were probably looking for meaning in the connection of the words. You were actually being creative but unfortunately the solution required you to ignore meaning and look at the features of the letters.

It was a trick, like so many of these so called tests, designed to catch you out. A cheap trick to place the perputrator on higher intellectual ground than his audience. This sort of thing is an anathema to me. It goes against everything I talk about which is that everyone can be more creative. The main thing stopping us is confidence in our abilities which smug little problems only eat away at.

So pay no attention to these parlour games and continue to work on developing your true creativity that will enrich your life and work.

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8 comments on “Lateral thinking problems are evil

  1. The problem we find, and why I wrote the article, is that people constantly tell us to “think out of the box” but never, ever define the box or how to think out of it. I’ve been in sessions where the delegates have been given those stupid puzzles and told, “you can’t do it ‘cos you’re not thinking out of the box” and leave everyone feeling stupid.

    My work is all about avoiding that unhelpful approach.

    And yes, creativity can and should be defined as making new associations of existing things or ideas. It’s certainly not about being entirely new which one could argue is impossible.


  2. A helpful distinction Ayd. Which suggests that ‘thinking outside the box’ could simply land you in another, more boring, box.

    Question: is creativity about making novel connections between existing things (as some humour does), or is it more about forming something entirely new? Or neither? Or both?


  3. Hi there,Great stuff. Have you seen my book Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ – a great read on business creativity!Available on Amazonall the bestPeter


  4. Not sure I’d call them “worthless”, but I agree that such games have little to do with creativity. But they stretch the brain, tease it, force it into a logical jig. Sometimes just the effort applied to solving them (even if we don’t) is good for us. Many of us tend to coast along with “easy” thoughts, so these can provide a little jump start to get out of sit-com stupors.


    • And you love ’em cos you set them!

      There is an interesting point that solving a puzzle set by someone else, a crossword or an exam for example, is about finding a required example answer, to be able to change your thinking to the thinking of the examiner. This is all very well, but shouldn’t be the full picture: our creativity needs to be able to solve puzzles and problems that NO-ONE has yet found the solution.

      So yes, games are a sort of training ground, but the real prize is the undiscovered country, the puzzle whose answer has for so long eluded us. Our creativity needs to be able to solve questions that may not even have been asked yet.

      So here’s a puzzle for you: how many creativity trainers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answers on a postcard please to the usual address…


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