Can't Think Outside the Box

Michael Metzger

In 1979, Steve Jobs was invited to tour the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. This was the “dream lab” in the foothills behind Stanford, one of Xerox’s famous skunk works. Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander recount the story in Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer. The authors describe how Xerox voluntarily offered the tour to Steve Jobs.

The story, however, is better told by Jobs. Several years ago on PBS, he recalled in vivid detail his day with Xerox. Jobs was shown three inventions but cannot to this day remember the other two. What sticks in his memory was a device that had been in development by Xerox since 1965. Researchers had been working long and hard on a cheap replacement for light-pens (which had been used since at least 1954). Xerox dubbed their invention the “Graphic Interface User” but weren’t convinced the boxy unit was commercially feasible. That’s what the Xerox people saw. Jobs saw a mouse.

The difference was the box. Not the box that Jobs stuffed under his arm as he walked out of the research center that day. Rather, it was the mental box that framed the same invention two different ways for two different groups. Xerox couldn’t think outside the box that framed their invention as a replacement for light-pens. And as we all know, they’re out of the computer business today and sell copiers. Steve Jobs modified the Graphic Interface User into a mouse for the Apple Lisa in 1982 and Apple Macintosh in 1984. Apple continues to be an industry leader in innovation. Yet Jobs’ success wasn’t the result of being able to think outside the box.

The truth is nobody can think outside the box.

This sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Don’t business consultants make a ton of money teaching us to “think outside the box?” Yes, they do. If you doubting this, you prove what I’m saying. It doesn’t fit inside your box. Example: I give you a box labeled chocolates. You open it to find carrots. Your immediate response: Huh? It doesn’t fit what you were expecting. That’s because any idea must first fit inside a frame (a box) in order to make sense. You simply can’t think outside the box.

A host of psychological experiments support this idea. For example, Carnegie Mellon researcher Carey Morewedge and her research team had two groups of volunteers sit in front of the same bowl of M&Ms. One half of the group was told that a packet of M&Ms contained about 3/175 their weekly recommended calories. The other half was told the M&Ms contained 3/25 their daily allowance (the caloric numbers are roughly equivalent). Yet researchers found “that the two frames of reference made a big difference when it comes to behavior. Volunteers asked to think about the weekly number of calories ate more than twice as many M&M’s as those asked to think about the daily number of calories.”1 The difference was the box – our frames of reference. Facts only make sense to us inside a frame of ideas and assumptions. “People think in frames. To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off,” writes George Lakoff.2 Why does your mind work this way? Because God’s mind works this way. He can’t think outside the box.

Sure, in God’s case we’re talking BIG box. But remember how God described Israel’s grievous sin? They did things that “did not even enter my mind.”3 Israel’s sin was outside God’s box. The same is true for lying. God cannot lie.4 The writer to the Hebrews agrees: “[I]t is impossible for God to lie.”5 For God, lying is outside the box. He is bound inside his nature, which is another way of saying he thinks inside a box. So do we. In truth, we can only think inside the box.

Or we can create what appears to a new box. In other words, reframe truth inside a new box. This is critical in a post-Christian world, where the faith is been there, done that. The ancient faith no longer fits most people’s frames. We say Jesus, they think been there done that. Reframing places old truths in new boxes, becoming new frames of reference. This is critical, since the Carnegie Mellon researchers also discovered that “people seem to choose frames of reference that supply them with answers they want.”7

Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem in the frame that created it. A frame is simply a box. If nobody thinks outside the box, create what appears to be a new box. Jesus did this all the time. He reframed ancient truths (“You have heard it said… but I say to you”). So should we in a post-Christian world.

1 Shankar Vedantam, “Count Today’s Calories and Check Your Wallet,” Washington Post, November 19, 2007, A3
2 George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004), p.17
3 I Samuel 15:29. C.f. Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5 & 32:35
4 Titus 1:2
5 Hebrews 6:18
6 Ecclesiastes 1:9
7 Vedantam, “Count Today’s Calories”


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