Think Outside A Carboard Box

Ever heard the phrase ‘Think outside the box‘? Of course you have. It’s easily one of the most pervasive idioms in marketing, management, presidential run and, possibly, every other field that exists. But is it really true? Does thinking outside the box, literally, make you better at solving problems?

Researchers at Cornell University had the same question and from their experiments they have concluded that it is totally true. Yeah, you read it right. When people literally sat outside a physical box, they were more creative than others who sat inside the said box. They detail their experiment in a recently published article in the New York Times.

They built a large cardboard box — large enough to fit people inside — and had some volunteers sit inside it. They also had volunteers sitting outside but close to the box. And then they gave the participants word association problems to solve — you know, the kind of puzzles where you need to find the common connector between seemingly disconnected words, like mound, foul, and bleachers.[Answer is Baseball, by the way]. When the researchers tallied up the results, they found out that the participants sitting outside the box got the correct answer a remarkable 20% more. Being and thinking outside of the box actually boosted problem solving skills.

The psychology term for this is embodied cognition. This is the skill that enables our brain to process metaphors meaningfully and turn larger problems to relatable and ultimately solvable puzzles. ‘A thousand yards’ is not easy to understand as ‘the length of ten football fields’ because embodied cognition enables our brain to identify and relate to familiar concepts and apply the idea to unfamiliar subjects.

The study, soon to be published in the Psychological Science journal, found out that the box does not have to be an actual box either. In one experiment, students from Singapore Management University were asked to come up with original ways of using an object made of Lego blocks while walking. Research showed that participants who walked freely came up with 25% more ways to use the object compared to those who were made to walk on a restricted and predetermined path. What is interesting is the novelty in the answers given by the free-walkers. They had higher quantity of ideas which were more flexible and unique.

In another experiment, just by moving their arms more – the changing hands metaphor – participants increased their creative capacity by up to 50 percent. Clearly, acting out our metaphors has direct impact in our cognitive skills. It is widely accepted that metaphors assist in our understanding of complex problems, but this study demonstrates that they have a real and tangible effect in our interpretation of the actions implied by those metaphors.

This is something I have experienced personally many times. When I am stuck at something at work, I go for a short walk outside the building and more often than not I come back with a solid workable strategy. It’s just nice that someone from Cornell University has the metrics to back up this strategy.

Moral of the study — Think outside the cubicle.

Original New York Times link.

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