Divergent Thinking and Making Decisions

Are you better at divergent or convergent thinking?

Convergent Thinking

Take the following multiple-choice question (credit to ASTRO 1102/1104 at Cornell):

Which of the following statements about planetary systems is correct?
A. Giant planets are always found 1 AU from their host star.
B. Planets can have extremely elliptical orbits.
C. Planets orbiting around the same star always have widely separated orbits.
D. All known exoplanets are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium.

How would you tackle it? Some of you, who read Scientific American or who took an introductory astronomy course in college, might go through each choice, run it through your cerebral fact-checker, and see if your brain says it's wrong. You do that one by one, eliminating choices as you go, until there is only one left.

Those of you who don't know how long an AU is, what would constitute an elliptical orbit, or what the hell an exoplanet is, might just look at the qualifiers. Choices A and C have an "always" in them and nothing is always anything, so that's out. Choice D starts with "all" which is the same idea, so that's out, too. Therefore, B is probably be the correct answer.

Both of these methods are "convergent thinking." You take a bunch of possibilities, one of which is right or best, and figure out which it is. We do this all the time, whenever we're deciding between tacos, burritos, and nachos. In fact, we use it every time we make a decision.

Divergent Thinking

"Divergent thinking" on the other hand is when you start with no possibilities and have to make them all up yourself. For instance, if I were to ask you to take a pen and paper and write down all the ways to skin a cat, that would be divergent thinking because there's more than one right or best way. Sure, there might be a best way, but it doesn't matter for this exercise as long as they all work.

We use divergent thinking in real life every time we write fiction or music, make movies, or think up date ideas for that cutie in organic chemistry lab. It's basically synonymous with creativity.

Which Bear is Best?

Psychologists have found that people tend to be better at one type of thinking or the other. If you can think of a million ways to skin a cat -- well, then you likely have some mental health issues you need to sort out -- but can't figure out that multiple choice question I gave you, you're probably better at divergent thinking.

On the other hand, if you just spent the last week taking SAT practice tests for fun even though you got your MBA two years ago, you're probably better at convergent thinking.

Thankfully, being good at one can can help you with tasks that require the other, up to a point. Going back to the multiple choice question, if you're better at divergent thinking, you can think of tons of possible planets and then check if they fit each characteristic. Each one could be disqualified by a counter-factual if you happened to stumble on it, but that leaves a lot to chance. This is called "guess and check" and it's certainly a valid way of solving problems if you're good at guessing and efficient at checking.

If you're better at convergent thinking, your best bet is probably just to ask someone more creative for a bunch of ideas which you can quickly parse through and figure out which is best. Thank God for Google, eh?

Does this mean that it's better to be good at divergent thinking, since it allows for a workaround for convergent thinking? I don't think so. Most of the time we're constantly alternating between the two types so you really need to be good at both, anyways. Here's our process during most waking hours when you're not watching TV, even if you don't realize it:
  1. Think of a ton of ideas for how to go about doing something.
  2. Figure out which is best.
  3. Try it.
  4. Repeat.

How to Get Better at the Type That's Harder for You

In the course of writing this article, I probably used each type of thinking a hundred times. I met a girl last weekend who was on Jeopardy and she was both more creative and better at problem solving than almost anyone I've ever met. But figure out where you're weaker and work on that.

To practice convergent thinking, go practice for the GREs or LSATs or whatever, even if you're not planning on going to grad school. It really will make you better at it. To practice divergent thinking, do something creative. Write jokes, music, or short stories. Draw comics, portraits, or landscapes. I find coding is exceptionally good practice for both.

Set a trigger. Practice every day. Get better.


The academic year is almost over. I'll post a sophomore year-in-review soon.