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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. 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. Overnight, it seemed that creativity gurus everywhere were teaching managers how to think 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. Let’s look a little more closely at these surprising results. Solving this problem requires people to literally think outside the box.