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Divergent Thinking
Divergent Thinking

Divergent Thinking

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or lateral thinking, is about generating multiple creative solutions to the same problem. It is a spontaneous, fluid, non-linear mental approach based on curiosity and nonconformity. In fact, it is also a type of thinking very common in children, where joy, imagination, and a fresh perspective make their reasoning more free. It is important in today’s modern world. In a society accustomed to mimicking similar skills, there comes a time when large companies begin to value other skills. Other dimensions that bring ingenuity and vitality to their projects. Thus, a person capable of offering innovation and creativity can make an attractive candidate. However, our schools and universities still prioritize a very convergent type of thinking in their methodology and as a result, creativity drops from genius level at age 5 to almost nonexistent by age 15. Divergent’s were the most feared faction in the ‘Divergent’ series of movies because they possessed multiple factions (gifts), think independently, and were a threat to the existing social order.

In the 1960’s J.P. Guilford differentiated and defined convergent and divergent thinking. 

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – George Scialabba1 (corrected from original article crediting Albert Einstein)

Although Guilford emphasized the importance of training children in divergent thinking, educational institutions have paid little attention to him. In general, they’ve prioritized a type of reflection (or rather lack thereof) where the student must use linear thinking, rules, and structured processes to come to the one “right” solution.

While in many cases, this strategy is useful and necessary, we must admit that real life is complex, dynamic, and imprecise enough that it’s unrealistic to think that problems have only one solution. Therefore, we need to learn how to use true divergent thinking.

Many educational centers do encourage their students to do more than find the right answer. There, the goal is to be able to create new questions.

Divergent thinking and psychological processes

Before continuing, it would be good to clarify one idea. No one kind of thinking is better than another. Convergent thinking is useful and necessary on many occasions. However, the real problem is that we’ve been “trained” to only think this way. We’ve neglected spontaneity, wit, and captivating freedom.

In many courses aimed at training people in divergent thinking, students are asked questions like the following:

  • What kind of things could you do with a brick and a pen? What kind of uses could you come up with if we gave you a toothbrush and a toothpick?

At the beginning, it may be hard to come up with even one idea. However, some people are capable of coming up with multiple answers and ingenious ideas because they are good at what Edward de Bono calls “lateral thinking”. To understand how this works a little better, let’s see what kind of psychological processes come into play.

Semantic networks, or the theory of connectivity

Divergent thinking is the capacity to find relationships between ideas, concepts, and processes that, at first glance, lack any similarity. Psychologists who are experts in creativity say that people have different mental networks of association:

  • People with “steep” semantic networks are governed more by logic and linear thinking.
  • People with “flat” semantic networks have mental networks that are much more connected. That is, sometimes they relate two things to each other that don’t make sense but other networks contribute and an ingenious idea results.

Right and left brain

We have all heard about how the right hemisphere of the brain is the creative side and the left is the logical side. Therefore, according this theory, people who use more divergent or lateral thinking will more often use the right hemisphere. Well, we have to be careful with this kind of generalization about lateralization or cerebral dominance. Because actually it is a very nuanced process.

We can’t see the brain as an entity with clearly separated areas. In fact, when generating an idea, whether it is ingenious, conservative, logical, or highly creative, we use our whole brain. The key lies in how we connect one idea to another. The most ingenious people use tree-like thought processes. In other words, they are making connections in both sides of the brain, not just one.

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.” -George Bernard Shaw

How can I train myself in divergent thinking?

Like we said, all of us, regardless of age, can practice and improve our divergent thinking. To do so, we will focus on four areas in particular:

  • Fluency: the ability to produce a large number of ideas.
  • Flexibility: the ability to create a wide variety of ideas based on different fields of knowledge.
  • Originality: the ability to create innovative ideas.
  • Development: the ability to improve our ideas, to make them more sophisticated.

Now here are four ways to improve the four areas above:

Synectics exercises

“Synectics” is a term coined by psychologist William J. J. Gordon. Basically, it means being able to find connections and relationships between concepts, objects, and ideas that seem unrelated. This exercise takes a lot of mental work. We can do it daily by choosing the concepts ourselves. For example:

  • What can I do with a paper clip and a spoon?
  • What relationship could there be between the Limpopo River in Africa and Lake Baikal in Siberia?

The Scamper technique

The Scamper technique is another creative idea-developing strategy developed by Bob Eberle. It is very useful in creating something innovative and practicing divergent thinking. For example, let’s say we have to come up with an idea for work. Once we have that “idea”, we’ll put it through a series of “filters”.

  1. Substitute one element of that idea for another. (What can we change in how we have fun? And in how we work?)
  2. Now combine everything (What can we do to make our work more fun?)
  3. Adapt it (What do people do to be less stressed at other workplaces?)
  4. Modify it (How can we work without becoming stressed?)
  5. Give it other uses (What is there at work that I could do in a more fun way?)
  6. Eliminate something (What if you get to work a little earlier to make better use of the day?)
  7. Reform it (What would happen if I dared to…?)

Psychologist Nina Lieberman’s research in the very interesting book Playfulness: Its Relationship to Imagination and Creativity has something very relevant to add to this discussion. Divergent thinking goes hand-in-hand with joy, optimism, and inner well-being. Having good relationships, being well-rested, and being free of pressure, anxiety, and stress puts you in an ideal position for divergent thinking.

With our high-pressure, busy lives, we neglect many of these valuable dimensions. Therefore, we could also conclude that this type of thinking is also born out of a certain attitude towards life: free, cheerful, nonconformist, open to new experiences…

Divergent Thinking in Children

In 1968, George Land (with Beth Jarman) conducted a research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. This was the same creativity test he devised for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists. The assessment worked so well he decided to try it on children. He re-tested the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age (a longitudinal study).

The test was to look at a problem and come up with new, different, innovative ideas

The results were astounding. The proportion of people who scored at the “Genius Level”, were:

  • amongst 5 year olds: 98%
  • amongst 10 year olds: 30%
  • amongst 15 year olds: 12%
  • Same test given to 280,000 adults (average age of 31): 2%

According to Land, the primary reason for this is that there are two types of thinking processes when it comes to creativity:

  1. Convergent thinking: where you judge ideas, criticize them, refine them, combine them and improve them, all of which happens in your conscious thought
  2. Divergent thinking: where you imagine new ideas, original ones which are different from what has come before but which may be rough to start with, and which often happens subconsciously

Upon entry into the school system, those numbers started to drop dramatically. When the team returned to test those same subjects at age 10, the percentage of genius-level imaginative and innovative thinkers fell to an unthinkable 30 percent. The indicators led the researchers to believe the current educational system is to blame after losing 68% of their creative thinking by age 10. The downward spiral continued to be demonstrated at age 15.  When the researchers returned, the percentage of genius-level students had dropped to an abysmal 12 percent.

Land blames the Industrial Revolution and its burgeoning factories for the demise of creativity. During that era, Land said the natural approach to teaching and learning led educators to develop “factories for human beings, too, called ‘schools’ so we could manufacture people that could work well in the factories.” Charlotte Iserbyt and John Taylor Gatto have each written excellent books documenting the deliberate dumbing down of America by the corrupted education system dating back to the 1800’s and gaining momentum with the advent of tax exempt foundations such as the Rockefeller foundation and Carnegie Endowment. From a qualitative perspective, teachers point to governmental intrusion into the dumbing down of the nation’s school children. Starting with the development of the Department of Education, the federal government’s handprint is all over some of the worst decisions regarding public policy and education.

He notes that throughout school, we are teaching children to try and use both kinds of thinking at the same time, which is impossible. Competing neurons in the brain will be fighting each other, and it is as if your mind is having a shouting match with itself. Instead of this, Land suggests we need to allow people to split their thinking processes into the various different states, to make each of them more effective. It’s something which all of my own learning strongly correlates with as well, and which I speak about in my own lectures.

So if you want your child to retain their ability and desire to be creative, encourage them to let their mind run free while they come up with ideas, and only afterwards to sit down, evaluate them and start working on the ones they think are the best.

But, is the study above right? Or even real? Elisabeth McClure from the LEGO Foundation challenges the Land study and assumptions about the creativity of children and adults. She is well-studied on creativity, divergent, and convergent thinking and it’s amazing that this Ted Talk has less than 10,000 views. Well worth your time…

Hollywood Movie, ‘Divergent

In the movie set in a futuristic city of dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intellectual). The remaining population are the Factionless, who have no status or privilege in this society. When children reach the age of 16, they undergo a serum-induced psychological aptitude test which indicates their best-suited faction, though they are allowed to choose any faction as their permanent group at the subsequent Choosing Ceremony.

Beatrice Prior (played by Shailene Woodley) was born into Abnegation, which runs the government. Beatrice takes her test with a Dauntless woman named Tori Wu (Maggie Q) as her proctor. Her results show equal attributes of multiple factions meaning she is Divergent. Her divergence includes Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. Tori records her results as Abnegation and warns her to keep the true result a secret, saying that because Divergents can think independently and are aware of any serums injected in them the government cannot control them and they are considered threats to the existing social order.