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Lateral Thinking: A Creative Mental Exercise And A Reporter's Tool:

Queens Tribune Online, Queens County's Largest Weekly Newspaper - Founded in 1970

By MICHAEL SCHENKLER, Publisher, Queens Tribune, (with permission - copyright 2000 Tribco, Inc.)

It all began a month ago when I stopped by an editorial meeting. I realized, listening to some of the new young reporters, that they need to expand their problem solving and information gathering skills. They need to acquire an ability to look at things in a slightly off center manner so that they might come up with an angle to the story that is not what everyone expects.

You can’t take a press release from an elected official, call for a quote and get an exciting story. You have to ask, "What don’t they want me to know?" "Would this have happened without the elected official claiming credit?" "Is this the best solution for the community?" "Is there more to the picture than meets the eye?"

The reader – our readers – have a right to know the whole story; not just what "they" want to let you know. Therefore, reporters must be trained to think outside the traditional box. They must come up with approaches to problems that are not the norm.

It is my version of "lateral thinking," a term coined by Edward de Bono to denote a problem-solving style that involves looking at the given situation from unexpected angles. Sometimes a problem seems difficult or insoluble because our assumptions about it are wrong.

Lateral thinking is about moving sideways when working on a problem to try different perceptions, different concepts and different points of entry. The term covers a variety of methods including provocations to get us out of the usual line of thought.

For example: Granny is sitting knitting and three-year-old Susan is upsetting Granny by playing with the wool. One parent suggests putting Susan into the playpen. The other parent suggests it might be a better idea to put Granny in the playpen to protect her from Susan. A lateral answer!

Lateral Thinking is the ability to add a slight "twist" to the pattern of logical thinking to produce an unexpected answer!

Lateral Inspirational Thinking is when you suddenly ‘leap’ from one line of logical thinking to another. . . unexpectedly! . . .as in the punch-line of a joke!

To me, the best way to visualize lateral thinking is by picturing an optical illusion. There can be two ways to view something. Or perhaps the picture doesn’t make sense. But sometimes, when you look at things one way, you are sure of what you see. With lateral thinking, a different approach may make a different image appear as plain as the nose on one’s face.

A classic example:

The Surgeon

A father and his son are involved in a car accident, as a result of which the son is rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. The surgeon looks at him and says "I can’t operate on him, he’s my son." Explain.

Simple, the surgeon is a woman — the boy’s mother.

To solve these puzzles you’ll need to check your assumptions, especially about who, what, when, where, and why?

Some won’t yield to that approach, and demand a flash of inspiration, such as:

The Landlord

A landlord is threatening to evict a father and his beautiful young daughter, unless she agrees to marry him. In a false gesture of sincerity, he offers her an opportunity for her and her father to remain in the house, without marrying him. He has a silk bag in which he says he has placed a white and a black stone from the footpath on which they’re standing. If she picks the white stone from the bag, without looking, she wins; if she picks the black, she loses. However, the young girl saw him place two black stones in the bag. She can’t expose him in front of the witnesses without angering him and making things worse. How does the clever girl win?

The only way we can figure this one is that she picks a stone and immediately drops it on the footpath among other stones. Then she exclaims that the color of her stone can be told by looking in the bag to see what color stone remains.

Ingenious? Or just a good case of lateral thought?

So, be prepared to think outside the box for these classic lateral thinking puzzles.

nfp1-1005.gif (1307 bytes)
Lateral Thinking is like an optical illusion of the mind.


Nutty Problem

A man is replacing a wheel on his car, when he accidentally drops the four nuts used to hold the wheel on the car and they fall into a deep drain, irretrievably lost. A passing girl offers him a solution which enables him to drive home. What is it?


Who said, "Keep it simple stupid?" Use one nut from each of the other three wheels.

Trouble with Sons

A woman had two sons who were born on the same hour of the same day of the same year. But they were not twins. How could this be so?

No, don’t get carried away with test tube science — it’s a lot simpler if you think laterally. There was another baby — they are triplets — or quadruplets — or whatever.

The Coal, Carrot and Scarf

Five pieces of coal, a carrot and a scarf are lying on the lawn. Nobody put them on the lawn but there is a perfectly logical reason why they should be there. What is it?

The snowman had apparently melted. It’s not so tough. Watch out for change of state (gas, liquid, solid) puzzles.

Hanging Man

A man is found dead hanging from a rope around his neck in the center of a room with no furniture. A small puddle is on the floor below him. He had no apparent way of hanging himself but the police declared it a suicide. Explain?

Another change of state — the puddle is what remains of the block of ice on which he stood.

The Man in the Elevator

A man lives on the tenth floor of a building. Every day he takes the elevator to go down to the ground floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he returns he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up the stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking, so why does he do it?

This is probably the best known and most celebrated of all lateral thinking puzzles. It is a true classic. Although there are many possible solutions, this one is right on target.

The man is a midget and can’t reach higher than the seventh floor.

Lift the Bridge?

A truck is stuck at a road under a bridge. It’s just an inch or so too high to pass under. Any other route, avoiding the bridge, would add many hours to the journey. A young boy comes along and saves the day. How?

He lets a little air out of the tires.


A man rode into town on Friday. He stayed for three nights and then left on Friday. How come? A silly one – but it is surprisingly popular.

Friday was the name of the horse.

Get out of the box! Think laterally.

And so, I have compiled a lateral thinking test by selecting from the dozens of standard simple questions that float around the internet, are exchanged in offices or are part of discussions of groups where the process of thinking takes center stage.

Try the test. Discuss it with a friend or friends. Look for that inspirational flash that will take you from ordinary to extraordinary. Play with it awhile. You might enjoy it. Maybe, you’ll even learn to expand your everyday perceptions of things.

The answers are given through the link below — but don’t scroll to it yet. Try a couple of questions. Check the answers — we try to give you a little of the lateral thinking approach. Go back and apply what you have learned and try several more.

Lateral Thinking Test

1. Do they have a 4th of July in England?

2. How many birthdays does the average man have?

3. Some months have 31 days, how many have 28?

4. A woman gives a beggar 50 cents, the woman is the beggar’s sister, but the beggar is not the woman’s brother. How come?

5. Why can’t a man living in the U.S.A. be buried in Canada?

6. How many outs are there in an inning?

7. Is it legal for a man in California to marry his widow’s sister? Why?

8. Two men play five games of checkers. Each man wins the same number of games. There are no ties. Explain this.

9. Anthony and Cleopatra are lying dead on the floor of a villa in Egypt. Nearby is a broken bowl. There is no mark on either of their bodies and they were not poisoned. How did they die?

10. A man builds a house rectangular in shape. All sides have southern exposure. A bear walks by the house. What color is the bear? Why?

11. There are three apples and you take away two. How many do you have?

12. I have two U.S. coins totaling 55 cents. One is not a nickel.
What are the coins?

13. If you have only one match and you walked into a room where there was an oil burner, a kerosene lamp, and a wood burning stove, what would you light first?

14. How far can a dog run into the woods?

15. A doctor gives you three pills telling you to take one every half hour. How long would the pills last?

16. A clerk in the butcher shop is 5' 10" tall. What does he weigh?

17. How many animals of each sex did Moses take on the ark?

18. A farmer has 17 sheep, and all but nine die. How many are left?

19. How many two cent stamps are there in a dozen?

nfp2-1005.gif (1631 bytes)Lateral Thinking requires
that you throw away
normal assumptions.
Follow the tubes.

20. What was the president’s name
in 1950?

21. If you drove a bus with 43 people on board from Chicago and stopped at Pittsburgh to pick up seven more people
and drop off five passengers and at
Cleveland to drop off eight passengers and pick up four more and eventually arrive at Philadelphia 20 hours later, what’s the
name of the driver?

22. In Okmulgee, Oklahoma, you cannot take a picture of a man with a wooden leg. Why not?

23. I went to bed at eight o’clock in the evening and wound up my clock and set the alarm to sound at nine o’clock in the morning. How many hours sleep would I get before being awoken by the alarm?

24. How could you rearrange the letters in the words "new door" to make one word? Note: There is only one correct answer.

25. A taxi driver was called to take a group of passengers to the train station. The station is normally an hour away, but with traffic being extra heavy, it took a full hour and a half. On the return trip the traffic was still as heavy and yet it took only 90 minutes. Why?

26. A child is born in Boston, Massachusetts to parents who were both born in Boston, Massachusetts. The child is not a United States citizen. How is this possible?

27. Before Mount Everest was discovered, what was the highest mountain on Earth?

28. Captain Frank and some of the boys were exchanging old war stories. Art Bragg offered one about how his grandfather led a battalion against a German division during World War I. Through brilliant maneuvers, he defeated them and captured valuable territory. After the battle, he was presented with a sword bearing the inscription "To Captain Bragg for Bravery, Daring and Leadership. World War One. From the Men of Battalion 8." Captain Frank looked at Art and said: "You really don’t expect anyone to believe that yarn, do you?" What’s wrong with the story?

29. What is one thing that all wise men, regardless of their religion or politics, agree is between heaven and earth?

30. A woman from New York married ten different men from that city, yet she did not break any laws. None of these men died and she never divorced. How was this possible?

31. Why are 1990 American dollar bills worth more than 1989 American dollar bills?

32. How many times can you subtract the number 5 from 25?

Thirty-two questions in a test, that’s odd! No, not really. We’re just trying to get you to think outside that conventional box.

To check the answers click here.

Lateral thinking is certainly not going to replace conventional thinking style. It is a new idea, and it’s hard to accept at times. Most of the examples presented here have been fairly small scale – not big enough for us to realize the potential and the usefulness of this thinking method!

Schools have not adopted lateral thinking as part of their curriculum. Tradition has often stifled creativity.

Now we don’t hold out lateral thinking as a panacea. We don’t believe it to be much more than an exercise for the mind. An exercise, if well practiced, can lead you to ideas, approaches, thoughts and conclusions that otherwise you might have missed.

If this whole exercise left you cold, perhaps one day you’ll be reading the Trib and gasp, "How did they ever figure that out?"

We’ll never tell.


Michael Schenkler can be reached at:

copyright 2000 Tribco, Inc.

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Last modified: May 01, 2008