Use your Mind Effectively: Learn about Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Divergent and convergent thinking are two separate thinking skills, which are both important aspects of critical thinking, problem solving and intelligence. They are two sides of a single coin, so one wouldn’t work without the other. This article discusses divergent and convergent thinking, their benefits and information on how to use these thinking aspects successfully.
What is Convergent Thinking?
Joy Paul Guilford coined the term ‘convergent thinking,’ which referred to giving the correct answer to questions that don’t require creativity. Convergent thinking is a thought method used in evaluating a few sets of answers or ideas, narrowing down the most possible options using knowledge and logic, then choosing one correct answer. This type of thinking occurs when a person gathers information from facts, experiences and evidence from various sources to arrive at a solution to a problem. In convergent thinking, there is usually a single best solution sought.
Convergent thinking is associated with science and mathematics. Convergent thinking can be tested using standard IQ tests, multiple-choice questions, logic thought flow, pattern recognition and other problem-solving activities. When used in school exams, the test-taker remembers knowledge from outside of the problem (usually learned in class or readings) and “converges” all information into the problem to determine the correct answer. Since traditional schooling provides students with information, then gauged their learning skills with exams, convergent thinking comes naturally to most people.
If a group uses convergent thinking in brainstorming the most ‘correct’ answer, they share possible answers to a problem and analyze, judge, eliminate and select a single answer. Convergent thinking is used in drawing conclusions, finding clarity, considering practical constraints, determining the bottom-line and selecting the best idea.
What is Divergent Thinking?
Divergent thinking is a thought method used in generating creative ideas while exploring many possible solutions from an original concept, topic or problem, instead of just one correct answer. Divergent thinking is associated with fine arts and humanities. Unlike convergent thinking, this type of thinking cannot be gauged by tests, since creativity skills can’t be graded.
Instead of gathering information and focusing on the main problem like in convergent thinking, the person branches off or “diverges” into new ideas, perspectives, angles and creative thoughts ‘outside’ the main idea, problem or thought. Since creativity is working as one diverges multiple ideas, there can be many answers. A good example of divergent thinking is teachers asking students to list down the uses of objects such as paper, wherein there can be a hundreds of possible answers.
One of the most popular divergent thinkers is Albert Einstein, who spent several years of mental exercises and experimental questions that helped him develop the theory of relativity.
The use of divergent thinking within group discussions and collaborative activities allows all team members to provide as many new ideas as possible within a short time. During this time, all ideas are considered and judgment is suspended so that spontaneous, creative and even crazy ideas are put to the table. Simply put, divergent thinking knows no bad idea. The group aims to compile as much new creative ideas as possible without logical and practical limitations, judgments or constrains.
How to Combine Convergent Thinking with Divergent Thinking
Using convergent and divergent thinking with day-to-day tasks can be an advantage, but can also result in negative results. Since divergent thinking opens the mind to all creative possibilities, convergent thinking involves analyzing these possibilities and choosing a single idea or answer. Neither aspect of thinking is superior to the other, but one can be ‘more appropriate’ to use in a task, problem or scenario. If used simultaneously, one would reduce the benefits of the other.
To see the negative results of using both divergent and convergent thinking simultaneously, take a brainstorming of a group as an example. If all team members put their ideas to the table (as they all use divergent thinking), then one shoots down an idea or judge one of the suggestions being made (convergent thinking), the entire session collapses and other team members become defensive in sharing new ideas. However, this session can still be saved if the group has an effective facilitator that would get the brainstorming back on track.
Conversely, if a group is in the process of finding one answer by narrowing down possible answers, the most effective method to use is convergent thinking. When the team members assess and judge ideas based on criteria, objectives or problems, they are able to separate ideas thoroughly and end up with a single idea. If someone in the team suddenly puts divergent thinking into the table by giving new “out of the box” ideas while in the process of evaluation, the group breaks down due to unnecessary generation of ideas.
These two examples show how combining divergent and convergent thinking in inappropriate times can ruin flow of ideas in a group. To ensure all team members’ thinking methods are in sync, everyone must first observe what thinking method is used in a brainstorming session – either diverging outward in a broad exploration of ideas or converging inward by judging, selecting and eliminating ideas. It is also good to develop skills in guiding your group to be as productive as possible.
Perhaps the most effective way in combing convergent and divergent thinking is by starting a discussion with divergent thinking to generate as many new ideas as possible, then switching to convergent thinking to evaluate all ideas, narrow them down and choose the most possible solution to a problem.
Are You a Divergent or Convergent Thinker?
Most people are better at one aspect of thinking (either convergent or divergent), than the other. This is precisely why many scientists and mathematicians are extremely gifted with convergent thinking, but fall short with divergent thinking; or why many artists and writers are effective divergent thinkers, but not so much when it comes to “logical” convergent thinking.
Both convergent and divergent thinking are used in problem solving. Since they complement each other, it is good to develop both styles of thought. After acknowledging you’re a divergent or convergent thinker, don’t neglect the other thinking aspect that you feel is harder. To strengthen these two thinking styles, one should possess a willingness to learn and an insatiable curiosity.