Why asking people to think outside the box is a bad idea

We think inside boxes because that is how we've been conditioned.

I have a problem with the phrase ‘think outside the box’ as a way to help other people to be creative and come up with new ideas. In my experience when someone asks you to ‘think outside the box’ it doesn’t help you to be creative. It just puts you under pressure to come up with quick fix solutions and makes you feel scorned and rejected for not being more ‘outside the box’ in the first place.

We think inside boxes because that is how we have been conditioned from an early age. At school we learn that we get rewarded for conforming, for getting things right, and not for inquisitive enquiry or being a maverick or a disruptor, which is what ‘thinking outside the box’ requires. Because thinking inside the box is ingrained into us from an early age it’s not realistic to simply ask people to ‘think outside the box’ and expect that they will easily be able to do it.

It turns out that it’s not just humans that are held back by the limitations that are conditioned into them. It applies to fleas too. Yes. Fleas.


Training fleas requires a glass jar with a lid. The fleas are placed inside the jar and the lid is sealed. They are left undisturbed for three days. Then when the jar is opened the fleas will not jump out. The fleas will never jump higher than the level set by the lid. When the fleas reproduce their offspring will automatically follow their example.

Do the same principles apply to humans? In some respects, yes, if we’re used to doing something a certain way and we have established habits built up over years it can be really difficult to think and act differently. Our established patterns of thinking and beliefs about ‘how we do things here’ can inhibit our creative thinking.

That’s why asking people to change the habits of a lifetime by ‘thinking outside the box’ isn’t a reasonable or realistic request.

If we want to think creatively it’s more helpful to give ourselves permission for time and space to think, to use practical tools to help shift established patterns of thinking and challenge the subconscious bias that we all have. We must look beyond what we know and involve outside perspectives and create an environment where challenge is healthy, where it’s OK to experiment and where failure is expected.

If you’d like some help to develop your own creative thinking skills or create a team environment where creativity and innovation can thrive then I’d love to chat drop me a line at lucy@lucidity.org.uk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to the weekly email for tips on creativity and innovation

Subscribe to Lucidity Insights