Vertical Thinking vs. Lateral Thinking

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
What is vertical thinking? What is lateral thinking? What's the difference between them? This lesson is going to define these two topics and differentiate between the two of them as well.


Think about this situation. You're driving on a road on a Saturday night in a college town's pub district. You see a car swerving back and forth across the road. What goes into your mind? Admit it, you most likely think it's a drunk. But is it? That may depend on whether you use vertical or lateral thinking. Let's go over some of the differences between the two in this lesson.


Before we can contrast the differences between the two general forms of thinking, we need to generally understand what they even are!

Vertical thinking can be thought of as a sequence of direct and logical steps that are used to come to a conclusion. Lateral thinking, on the other hand, is more about using an indirect and creative approach to come to a conclusion.


One example that can help easily contrast the major difference between vertical thinking and lateral thinking goes like this. Pretend that someone needs to get to a treasure chest buried deep underground. A person using vertical thinking will dig a hole and keep digging that same hole deeper and deeper until they (hopefully) get to the treasure chest. A person with lateral thinking may dig a hole for a while and realize it may not be the best spot to dig, so why not try digging a hole somewhere else instead, why be stubborn about it?

Just from this example alone, you can see that vertical thinking is a rigid way of thinking. It's about sticking to the approach you have taken from the beginning and excluding any other approach. Lateral thinking is flexible. It's all about thinking about a problem from different angles, even if they're a bit controversial, and generating new approaches to the same old thing.

Lateral thinking is more likely to follow the least likely path to something while vertical thinking follows the tried and tested. Columbus used lateral thinking about sailing West while everyone was thinking about sailing East, the good 'ol way so to speak.

Vertical thinking is sequential. Lateral thinking involves steps that aren't sequential but may still reach the same end. For example, 2 + 2 = 4 is vertical thinking as the equation moves in a specific sequence. Painting a picture, on the other hand, can be arrived at from numerous points, where the gaps between the points can be filled in infinite amounts of ways.

With lateral thinking, you don't have to be correct at every step of the way. With vertical thinking, you must be. Einstein made many mistakes before coming up with his theory of general relativity and before he got it right. It was made possible due to a heavy dose of lateral thinking. But when putting a complex piece of machinery together using a manual, you need to do it right with every step before moving on to the next step so that everything works out properly in the end.

Vertical thinking involves the depth of a person's expertise in the same area. Lateral thinking is about the breadth of knowledge, not the depth of expertise. A person with lots of depth can come up with minute details to answer a question but they'll get stuck putting those details into the context of a bigger picture, one that involves something outside of their field of expertise. A person using lateral thinking can put more details into more contexts across a wide range of fields. They don't have to be correct about it either, remember! Lateral thinking is all about creating possibilities not perpetuating the same old patterns.

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