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A nation of linear or lateral thinkers?

As a nation, the UK favours ‘Linear’ Thinking Strategies over ‘Lateral’ Thinking Strategies.

In fact, latest research* reveals that amongst workers and students Linear Thinking is the dominant thinking approach, with five times more people using Linear Thinking Strategies than those using Lateral Thinking Strategies.  



  • Depth Thinking: The systematic and rational thinking that is evidence-based through data, facts or analysis. This is about being deliberate, methodical and led by reason.
  • Expert Thinking: The fast, experience-based thinking that has often been studied in life and death situations. This thinking draws on past relevant experience to immediately make sense of a situation and to rapidly deploy everything known about it in an instant.
  • Link Thinking: The divergent or associative thinking more in keeping with Eastern tradition. This is about finding ideas and inspirations from one area of life and applying them to another, to make new connections.
  • Click Thinking: The lateral or strategic intuitive thinking that is largely unconscious and feels like it happens out of the blue, as an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. This is where ideas that apparently seem unconnected, suddenly come together in an instant.


They are the Expert and Depth Thinking strategies – and are connected as they are both about recognising existing patterns.

Expert Thinking is about rapid pattern recognition which is largely unconscious, while Depth Thinking is about deliberately and consciously looking for patterns amongst existing evidence and data.


These are the Link and Click Thinking strategies, which are both about creating new patterns.

Link Thinking is about creating new connections deliberately and consciously, while Click Thinking is when these connections happen unexpectedly and unconsciously.


So, what’s the issue if we’re a nation of Linear thinkers? Here’s the thing. Each Thinking Strategy has its own unique brilliance, so if we’re not using all four Thinking Strategies, we’re not accessing all of our potential brilliance.

But there’s another key consideration; while each Thinking Strategy comes with great brilliance, it also comes with great bias. It means that a nation which is over-reliant on linear thinking is at risk of leaving thinking bias unchecked.

“The neural networks in the brain are like the creation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water is random but as soon as it forms as path, the water is more likely to follow the pathway of least resistance. As the path deepens, the more efficient is gets. It is the same with our neural connections.” Robert Burton, neuroscientist

As our brains naturally work to lay down deep, efficient pathways, it gets harder to break out of the habitual lines of thinking that result.  In practice, as a society we have favoured the deeply analytical, systematic and the rational of depth thinking together with the swift judgement and efficiency that comes with expert thinking.  While depth thinking is slow and conscious and expert thinking is rapid and largely unconscious, they are united in being essentially about pattern recognition.


What does this mean? Eventually, the efficiency can create blinkers to our thinking, we can get stuck and unable to break out into new pathways to create new patterns that aren’t based on what’s gone before.

Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story. Our brains also have a remarkable capacity to make brand new connections. In fact, our brains are built to make connections:

“A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighbouring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimetre of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.” David Eagleman, neuroscientist

The major problem is not that our brains can’t make the connections – the truth is, that we just don’t always realise or make use of the fact that they can. In fact, 4 out of 5 UK workers and students believe that some people are born more creative than others. This means that it is all too easy for us to avoid participating in ‘innovation activities’ as they are ‘only for the creative types’. It’s a belief that is held across the generations, making it clear that it’s a myth that persists and needs to be busted.

The reality is that our brains are beautifully designed to make connections – not just to follow one river bed but to flow and make new pathways and connections that can also take us outside of the existing pathways. It’s not about replacing the deep riverbeds, but about supplementing them. In this way, we rebalance what becomes out of kilter and create new connections needed for a complex and uncertain world where we will need to deal with new problems that may not yet even be conceived.

* 2016 and 2018 UK Thinking Benchmark Study, Thinkfully Limited


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At Thinkfully our aim is to put thinking fully on everyone’s agenda – it’s not just for the creatives, the academics or the cognitive scientists. We want everyone to discover the full power of their thinking, to overcome narrow and rigid thinking, and to use it to make the world a more think fully place. Where will your thinking take you?