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What Is Vertical Thinking?

Megan Shoop
Megan Shoop

Vertical thinking is a method of thinking in very linear, selective pathways. Each step is precise, necessary, and must be correct. Most of the time, vertical thinking must also follow a very straight path. In this method, there isn’t usually a way to diverge from the set thought process or skip steps in the pattern. Many psychologists say that vertical thinking is the opposite of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking can involve wrong answers, path divergence, and jumping from one step to another at random. Neither thinking method is right or wrong because there is a place for both, and both can be useful.

Most methods of vertical thinking are very useful in subjects like math and science. These subjects involve objective, precise truths that cannot necessarily be changed. For instance, someone solving the math problem (21 + 3 – 2 + 10 – 1) must think vertically. If he or she tries to solve this problem out of order, the answer will be wrong. Instead, the individual must add and subtract the numbers in order to get the correct answer of 31. The same is usually true for science because scientific concepts like chemicals, weather patterns, and body systems must fit together in a certain way for them to work, or be understood, properly.


Many musicians also engage in vertical thinking. This is usually necessary for someone trying to put together a musical arrangement, especially when several instruments and voices are involved. A vertical thinker can often picture how the different instruments will sound together and help them harmonize. This is not to say that a lateral thinker could not do this, it simply means a vertical thinker might be able to do it more quickly and easily. Conversely, many lyricists are lateral thinkers because their creative and provocative thinking methods help them compose interesting poetry.

Lateral thinking is often seen as the opposite of vertical thinking. People who usually think laterally may have a difficult time focusing on step-by-step tasks, but often come up with interesting solutions to thorny problems. For instance, a lateral thinker who cannot find an clothing iron may warm a cast iron pan on the stove and use that instead. A vertical thinker would probably borrow an iron from a neighbor or go purchase one. Neither solution is wrong, they are simply different. Both methods may also produce the desired result.

Sometimes it is best if vertical thinking and lateral thinking are combined. For instance, perhaps a lateral thinker and a vertical thinker are putting together a particle board bookshelf. The vertical thinker understands how to put the shelf together quickly and correctly, following each step precisely. Say the bookshelf does not quite fit in its assigned space when it is assembled. The vertical thinker may consider getting a new shelf or placing it somewhere else. The lateral thinker may solve the problem by laying the bookshelf on its side or rearranging some furniture. In other words, by working together, they could figure out different ways to make the shelf fit.

Discussion Comments


RE: " ... Lateral thinking can involve wrong answers..."

Of course it can! I am a lateral thinker and also use vertical thinking with visual patterns to solve many complex problems rapidly, and I resent that (cherry picked) remark. Is it then implied that vertical thinking is wrong answers free? Please... Dream on! An obvious example, it is not so? Vertical thinking computer programmers and their results! Ho! Got you there.

How does the author of this article think it makes minority thinkers and the left handed feel, reading such a statement?

Many left handed people are also lateral thinkers. I sometimes want to join the LGBTQ society, if they'll adopt me. I have felt so discriminated against by the "majority" thinkers and "put in my place," as if my input was usually not wanted, even though it was relevant and problem solving, especially at committee meetings. A vertical thinker at the meeting takes my thought, changes it a bit, reintroduces it and gets the credit for it. How many times has that happened to lateral thinkers, I wonder? It was correct problem solving but the thought was rejected due to fuzzy presentation?

The online thesaurus has these synonyms for the 'left- handed': adj. using left hand or awkward. (Strike one). Ambilevous, clumsy, gauche, maladroit, sinistral, awkward, dubious, insincere, sinister, southpaw. Oh, really?

We might as well be burned at the stake., be handled as lepers, permanent flu and Ebola spreaders. Insincere? Good grief. As the kids say, "I might as well eat worms." Women's rights pursuits are de rigueur nowadays, but how about including "Left-Handed and lateral thinkers Rights" as well? After all, there are also lateral thinking and left handed women.

@Makerrag: You are absolutely correct and your illustration is splendid. I have continuously had the experiences mentioned under similar circumstances. All of them. To use a popular example: If one studies the old movies of the Three Musketeers compared to the protagonist in "The Highlander," the Highlander is more of a vertical thinker, whereas the Three Musketeers are portrayed as being more lateral thinkers. My opinion. There. I proved that this lateral thinker can introduce peripheral distant examples into the conversation.


There is a place for both lateral and vertical thinkers, but too many of either can be a disaster in a business climate. For example, too many lateral thinkers can monopolize a planning session with their creative ideas, but very little winds up getting done when it comes to problem solving -- you've got the problem laid out, but the path between "here" and "there" diverts too much with lateral thinkers tossing out various, distracting ideas.

On the other hand, too many vertical thinkers leads to limited originality when it comes to facing new challenges. That is because the steps necessary to solve the problem at hand may be couched in experience and history, but that is of limited use when dealing with something new. Some creative solutions, in that context, are necessary but the vertical thinkers can be useful in keeping the lateral ones on the linear path to reaching a solution.

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