What is Divergent Thinking?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Divergent thinking is an approach to a situation or concept which focuses on exploring as many aspects of the concept as possible. Starting with a single idea, the divergent thinker allows his or her mind to wander off in many different directions, gathering numerous thoughts and ideas which relate to the concept. This approach can be used as a method of creative brainstorming in a wide variety of settings, ranging from the research and development department of a major company to the classroom.

Free-writing diaries can encourage divergent thinking.
Free-writing diaries can encourage divergent thinking.

With divergent thinking, people start out thinking about a single concept, and develop many solutions and approaches to the concept. This contrasts with convergent thinking, in which many ideas are brought together to a single focus, often by following a series of logical steps to arrive at this focus. Divergent thinking is often associated with creative pursuits and the humanities, which tend to encourage a more free-form method of thinking, but in fact, it can be beneficial in the sciences as well, with the ability to think in a far-reaching and erratic way being a useful skill when it comes to solving some scientific puzzles.

Divergent thinkers gather numerous thoughts and ideas related to one central concept.
Divergent thinkers gather numerous thoughts and ideas related to one central concept.

It is difficult to test for divergent thinking on examinations which are designed to test intelligence and mental ability. This type of thinking cannot be pinned down or categorized, because it relies heavily on the ability to generate random, disorganized thoughts in a free-flowing way, and there is no way to test for this with a conventional examination. As a result, people who are skilled at thinking divergently may not perform terribly well on intelligence tests, when they are in fact quite intelligent.

Divergent thinking exercises can help develop the mind and foster creativity. For example, students might be given a list of items and asked to think of as many possible uses as they can for each. Or, students may be presented with a problem and asked to brainstorm a number of different solutions. This type of thinking can also be used as the basis for the development of products in addition to intellectual ideas.

For people who are used to convergent thinking, it can be difficult to explore divergent thinking. Aids such as free association exercises, free writing diaries, and so forth can help people grow accustomed to thinking in this way while allowing them to develop their thoughts. There are also numerous exercises available on the Internet, including exercises designed for classrooms and groups.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@SurfNTurf - I agree that divergent thinking, or thinking outside the box, is not limited to the arts but also has application in the sciences as well. My specialty, computer science, has undergone a radical transformation in the past twenty years.

Development tools using easy to understand graphical interfaces have opened up opportunities for people with visual skills to become programmers. We employ people from all backgrounds as developers.

Without fail, we notice that they all have different ways of approaching a programming problem. Of course, they all have basic programming knowledge under their belt, that’s not the issue. But there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat when faced with a real-world problem.

Sometimes we go with the more creative approaches, at others time we don’t. But we bounce ideas off each other and arrive at consensus. At our company, at least, divergent and convergent thinking are both important in solving problems.


@SurfNTurf - Wow that is pretty creative. I think that creativity and divergent thinking should be fostered in children. There are many solutions to problems and when children learn that there are different paths to solving the same issue they develop their divergent thinking skills.

I think that debate teams really help kids articulate their point of view on how they would solve a particular problem. In fact, many projects offered as part of the curriculum really allow the children to follow strategic thinking avenues especially involving science projects.

I also think that art is especially important in this realm because it allows all children to express themselves in an individual fashion, and they learn that art could be anything and that there are many different ways to create a work of art.


I think that there should be a focus on more creative divergent thinking because this is what solves problems. We need to identify people that have their thinking hats on and can really participate in strategic thinking.

Unfortunately IQ tests don’t focus on this aspect of intelligence which is very valid. Instead it focuses on verbal and perpetual reasoning along with processing speed and working memory.

While all of these categories are important for IQ testing, this does not take into account the level of creativity needed to solve many problems. For example, my friend has a son that scored in the gifted range on an IQ test and has excellent reasoning skills but is not nearly as creative as her daughter who scored in the high average range for IQ.

My friend was telling me that she was so creative that one day when she punished her and did not allow her to play with her toys and took her toys out of her room; she then made a set of toys with some socks, rubber bands and a marker. In fact, she made a whole sock family so that she could have toys to play with. Her mother could not believe her creativity and thought that she was incredibly resourceful which is something that unfortunately the IQ tests can’t measure.

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