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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.
The correct solution, however, requires you to draw lines that extend beyond the area defined by the dots.
At the first stages, all the participants in Guilford’s original study censored their own thinking by limiting the possible solutions to those within the imaginary square (even those who eventually solved the puzzle).
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.
He challenged research subjects to connect all nine dots using just four straight lines without lifting their pencils from the page.
Keeping track of them all can be quite the undertaking.
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.
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.
The idea went viral (via 1970s-era media and word of mouth, of course).