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Yet participants’ performance was not improved even when they were given specific instructions to do so.
That is, direct and explicit instructions to think outside the box did not help.
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.
Because they hadn’t, they were obviously not as creative or smart as they had previously thought, and needed to call in creative experts. The nine-dot puzzle and the phrase “thinking outside the box” became metaphors for creativity and spread like wildfire in marketing, management, psychology, the creative arts, engineering, and personal improvement circles.
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.
The second group was told that the solution required the lines to be drawn outside the imaginary box bordering the dot array.
Most people assume that 60 percent to 90 percent of the group given the clue would solve the puzzle easily. What’s more, in statistical terms, this 5 percent improvement over the subjects of Guilford’s original study is insignificant.
In other words, the difference could easily be due to what statisticians call sampling error.
Let’s look a little more closely at these surprising results.
Solving this problem requires people to literally think outside the box.