What is Lateral Thinking? - Definition, Theory & Examples

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the concept of lateral thinking. You'll learn what the phrase means, explore some of the basic theory behind it, and see a few examples of lateral thinking.

What Is Lateral Thinking?

If you lived back in the 1400s in Europe and you wanted to strike it rich, you'd become a merchant taking goods from the Far East and Middle East and selling them in Europe. You'd go east from Europe to pick up your goods and back west again to sell them.

But if you engaged in lateral thinking, which is a creative and indirect way of coming up with a new solution to an old problem, then you would've discovered (so to speak) the New World by first going west instead of east. And your name would've been Christopher Columbus.

Let's go over the general theory behind what lateral thinking is about, and discuss some more examples of lateral thinking.


The basic theoretical premise behind lateral thinking is known as pattern changing. People love to look for and follow patterns because they are predictable and sometimes explainable, and therefore comforting as a result. Our mind loves to find connections between things, even if they aren't really there.

But lateral thinking is all about changing patterns. Instead of looking at some sort of pattern and then moving forward with that pattern, step by step, lateral thinking either restructures old patterns or comes up with completely new ideas altogether.

Another important premise behind lateral thinking is attitude. Yep, lateral thinking is as much about restructuring our attitudes as it is about changing old patterns. A good lateral thinking attitude is accepting that patterned ways of looking at things or doings things can be useful; it's not about disregarding them outright. However, lateral thinking is also about having the attitude that an old structured way isn't necessarily an absolute, nor is it necessarily unique. In other words, other (potentially better) alternatives may be possible. That's the mindset of a lateral thinker!

Another critical aspect of the theory behind lateral thinking is forward thinking. That is to say, lateral thinking is not about the analysis of the events that led up to the current point in order to figure out if the current point is where you want to be. Lateral thinkers do not look back to justify what has led them to where they are. Instead, they look forward. Instead of analyzing a past event, they focus on the information they have in hand and the effect this information may have in determining a future outcome.


Theories are pretty nebulous, so you might not have the best grasp of what all of this means. So why don't we work through a few examples to show you these ideas in real life?

Let's go back to pattern changing. The old patterned way of thinking during Columbus's day was to go east to get exotic goods that could then be sold back west in Europe. Columbus changed this pattern by going west.

Here's a more day to day example. Let's say you're walking up to a store that's clearly open. You push the front door and it doesn't budge. The old patterned way of thinking is that if the door can't be pushed open, then it must be pulled open. And so you pull the door. But wait! It doesn't budge either. So what to do? Admit it, a lot of people would stop and repeat the old pattern of events, eventually getting frustrated and leaving, or maybe knock on the door to get someone to help them. A lateral thinker will realize the door slides open.

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