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The Famous Puzzle That Popularized the Phrase ‘Think Outside the Box’

Ellen Gutoskey
It's a different kind of box.
It's a different kind of box. / (Box) hjalmeida/iStock via Getty Images Plus; (Speech Bubble) Ajwad Creative/iStock via Getty Images Plus
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The figurative meanings of some phrases—like close, but no cigar and cut to the chase—seem different enough from the words themselves that you might assume they were once meant literally. (And in both those cases, you’d be right.)

Thinking outside the box, meaning to think unconventionally or creatively, doesn’t fully fall into this category. Even if a literal box had never been involved, the phrase would still make sense: Conventional practices and thought processes all fit nicely into a box, and you have to venture outside of that in order to come up with innovative ideas and solutions.

When the phrase first arose in the 1970s, however, an actual box of sorts was involved. What’s known as the nine dots puzzle entails drawing a box of nine evenly spaced dots and then connecting them all with just four lines, without lifting your pencil. In trying to do so, people tend to assume that they’re not allowed to extend their lines beyond the boundaries of the grid. But, of course, the only way to solve the puzzle is to do just that. In other words, you need to think outside the box. 

nine dots puzzle
Would you have boxed yourself in? / MissLunaRose12, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s unclear exactly how old the nine dots puzzle is. One variation is featured in Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums With Answers, published in 1914; some even credit British mathematician Henry Dudeney with having developed today’s version. 

Whatever the case, the puzzle gained popularity in the 1970s as a way for academics to illustrate how people think and work. As Forbes reports, psychologist J.P. Guilford used it in experiments in the early 1970s; leadership expert John Eric Adair claims to have introduced it in 1969.

The phrase think outside the box soon followed. The earliest known written reference, per the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from a 1971 piece in the journal Data Management. “Think outside the box,” the heading reads. “If you have kept your thinking process operating inside the lines and boxes [of organization charts], then you are normal and average, for that is the way your thinking has been programmed.”

But before think outside the box, we briefly had think outside the dots, which showed up in a June 1970 article in Alberta, Canada’s Lethbridge Herald. And in a 1959 newspaper column, as word histories reports, Hal Humphrey mentioned a method of thinking that “gets outside the nine-dot square.”

While encouraging people to think outside the dots might earn you some quizzical looks, it might leave more of an impression than the now-overused cliché of thinking outside the box.

[h/t Forbes]

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