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Is Thinking Outside the Box Really That Helpful?

Issues with thinking outside the box for critical thinking.

Key points

  • Thinking outside the box implies a freedom of thought and expression of ideas.
  • Our "free" thinking is restricted by us, in light of our interests, biases, and emotions.
  • Situational constraints can foster creativity in the context of "inside-the-box" thinking.

Thinking outside the box (TOTB) is an often romanticised concept regarding problem-solving and creativity because it implies that you are not restricted or bound by some governing force. It implies a freedom of thought and expression of ideas. It implies that you are an individual, a rebel against the system, with autonomy to think the way you want and live your own life! Yes, very romantic indeed; but it might be the case that you’re just asked to do this on Question 6 of tonight’s homework—a not-very-liberating prospect.

Perhaps it’s this romanticised outlook that makes TOTB so appealing—or maybe it’s just simply about less burden having to entertain parameters in your thinking, while simultaneously trying to create something "new" (e.g., a solution to a problem). One issue is that despite how TOTB might feel, true "freedom" shouldn’t be one of those feelings if critical thinking (CT) is your goal. Sure, TOTB might be a useful cognitive activity in some cases, but it might well be the case that its standing in pop culture overemphasises its practical use.

Imagine being asked to create a piece of visual art; its topic and focus can be anything you want it to be. Now imagine being asked to do that twice a week over the course of a year. Across the 104 pieces of original, freely creative pieces of art, you will likely see emerging patterns and themes. These patterns and themes might represent your interests, thoughts, biases, emotions—things very much personal to you. That’s not a criticism per se—we see it in all forms of art. Hell, that’s what art is supposed to be—personal expression. The problem, of course, is that when we use that similarly creative sensibility to things like problem-solving and idea generation, we’re likely to see the same patterns and themes. In actuality, our "free" thinking is restricted by us, the developers of the ideas and solutions, in light of our interests, biases, emotions, and the like (e.g., consistent with a previous post of free will)—barriers to CT.

Now, think back to your school days and those times in which you were asked to write about or create anything you wanted—did you enjoy these activities or were you one of the people who just wished that the teacher would be clearer with their guidelines regarding what they wanted from you? Parameters are not a bad thing—they’re not necessarily restrictive; often, they’re the opposite—facilitating you to think in a process-oriented manner. Consider problem-solving theory with respect to the steps we take in solving a problem (see, also, Dewey, 1910; Dwyer, 2017; Halpern, 2014; Hopwood, 1974). Following an organised list of steps is far from free thinking; yet, problem-solving is one of the classic examples of opportunities for creative thinking and TOTB. Even within the landscape of problem-scenarios, being provided "givens" and "options" provides much-needed context for solution generation. These "restrictions" are our friends.

Real-World Scenarios

A practical issue should be consideration of the fact that seldom in real-world scenarios are people ever truly provided opportunities to TOTB. Sure, it might be said to them, but then at the same time, they’re landed with caveats and guidelines. Maslow’s hammer springs to mind (i.e., "When all you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail"). Simply, you use what you have. Of course, this conceptualisation is akin to our previous discussion: We tend to approach creativity and problem-solving from a biased perspective. Of course, though, what you have available can be of great value. Givens and options, in practical settings, provide us with parameters for working within closed conditions. TOTB might wrongfully ignore the one thing that can help you. For example, if I’m provided a project brief at work, I’m likely to play by the rules and not go rogue. Using TOTB, as opposed to following the brief, might be cute, but, in professional settings, it will likely be discouraged when briefs are indeed provided.

Moreover, TOTB might not always yield a practical or feasible solution, despite its creativity. For example, I used to ask my CT classes what they thought might help resolve the conflicts in Syria, and, after deliberation, I still received blank stares. I offered the solution of "nuking" Syria. Blank stares changed to bewilderment and disgust before I quickly added that I did not support this position or any such violence; however, despite this solution likely "working" to put an end to the crisis, it wasn’t feasible—not only from a moral standpoint but also from political and economic standpoints. Thus, such a "creative" solution would be selected against.

Keeping with this issue of context, there is a time and a place for everything. Sometimes TOTB is warranted, sometimes it’s not. in many cases, people are better off using what they already know and learning additional information about the issue and then using this knowledge to come up with a solution. In other instances, specific knowledge may not be readily available and, thus, a collation of insight and the ability to TOTB may be the best and most feasible option. With that, I’d argue that in real-world scenarios that require CT, TOTB is seldom the right way to go. Sure, it might be useful during idea generation (e.g., perhaps even as a means of identifying what could go wrong with planned solution strategies, in terms of using inversion for your thinking), but the big question is whether it will survive analysis and evaluation.

Creativity "Inside the Box"

While innovation may not be the first word that comes to mind after hearing thinking "inside-the-box" (TITB), situational constraints can foster creativity in the context of inside-the-box thinking (Le Cunff, 2022). For example, one may look at their parameters and what they have to work with and decide to either add to it, take something away, or increase/decrease the size or amount of one of the existing elements. Allusions to Occam’s razor do not go astray here.

Again, we as a society have a romanticised perspective on what it means to TOTB, but this is not always appropriate, particularly in the arena of CT. However, some of the same "beauty" associated with it is evidenced through TITB; for example, looking at things in different ways. Of course, through TITB, we are looking at known things—givens, options, and parameters—and we embrace them as helpful to processes of problem-solving and idea generation.


Dewey, J. (1910). How to Think. Boston: Heath & Co.

Dwyer, C.P. (2017). Critical Thinking: Conceptual Perspectives & Practical Guidelines. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Halpern, D. F. (2014). Thought & Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking (5th ed.). UK: Psychology Press.

Hopwood, A. (1974). Accounting and Human Behaviour. London: Accountancy Age Books.

Le Cunff, A-L (2022). Systematic inventive thinking: the power of thinking inside the box. Ness Labs, Retrieved 18/05/2023 from

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