Do we think differently? Linear vs. Non-linear thinking

Do we think differently?  Linear vs. Non-linear thinking

Wondering why communication is so hard? Or how two, intelligent, educated people can come to such different conclusions on any given topic? I suggest it’s because we don’t all use the same processes to think. Dive in and comment below – there’s a great debate and we want your opinion!

I was tasked at work to blog on the difference between Linear and Non-Linear thinking, and how it relates to business. Not being an expert in the subject (but not feeling limited in expressing my opinion either) I dove in. Please feel free to comment – I love hearing your opinion.

Logic and Creativity

Some of us pride ourselves on being logical. We think through ideas with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. We enjoy structured thought and evidence-based conclusions. I’m sure you know the type – we plan out every step of a process, follow the Gantt chart to the “t”, and ensure results within schedules and deadlines.

Others of us pride ourselves on being creative. We rejoice in the big ideas, in the new discoveries, and in the satisfaction of creation. We are always coming up with new ways to solve problems, love the questions “what if?” and don’t mind jumping ahead in a conversation to tell you what we just thought of.

I suggest that these two characteristics of humans (logic and creativity) are often correlated with two different, but not disconnected types of thought processes: Linear and non-Linear thinking. Rather than argue that one is more important than the other, I suggest that they are both integral to success in business and, on the grander scale, life.

The Linearity of Logic

“Linear Thinking” is defined as:

a process of thought following known cycles or step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken.

If a = b, and b = c, then a = c. The application of linear thinking can be found in the well known Socratic Method:

a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas

Jan Helfeld (pronounced Iain), a rather infamous libertarian reporter, provides an amusing (or infuriating – depending on who’s side you’re on) application of the Socratic method to our political representatives. It’s all very logical, and for those who don’t build their policies or opinions on logic, it’s a game that raises tempers with captivating efficiency. After watching, I tend to wonder if any of our policy makers think through their political conclusions logically. Logic seems lost from our world, like an ancient language that’s spoken only by tribes of some distant jungle.

More important to this blog’s argument however, is that Jan’s use of the Socratic method is also extremely linear. As much as the person in the hot seat wants to jump around and evade, Jan forces them to answer one question before they move on to the next. The videos remind me of walking a puppy – when they want to walk every direction but the one you’re traveling. You rein them in every time before moving forward.

Though you may doubt it after watching Jan Helfeld’s videos, much of our world is indeed structured upon the concept of logic (very basic logic at least). We learn math, deductive reasoning, and tend to apply these logical processes to our everyday life. Our drive to do so comes from our inherent need, as cognitive humans, to categorize our experiences in our minds and make projections about what the outcome of an action will be. We compare our expectations with our experience, weigh the similarity, and adjust our thought processes as needed.

Linear thinkers are very much the same. They start at step one and usually do a good and efficient job of completing the task before moving on to step two. They are driven, focused, and don’t easily get off topic. Does this sound like you? Perhaps. Or maybe it sounds like the person in the office you have a tough time working with?

The Dangers of Logic

There’s a danger in relying too heavily on logic. The danger is in the determination of the starting point. Once a starting point is chosen, there are a limited number of logical conclusions to a problem. For example, imagine a store owner who believes that he must raise his revenues to increase his profits. He tries multiple methods including advertising, increasing inventory, and product bundling to make every possible sale to his customers. But he forgot that he could also reduce his costs to increase profits, and in doing so missed what could have been much less expensive, less demanding options.

This example is simplistic, but it underscores the point that for any logical process, there must be a decided-upon truth as a starting point. And the beauty of logic, is that it allows us to reach an answer from a given starting point. It’s easy, however, to rely upon starting points simply because they’re what we’ve used all our lives – starting points that either may be false, or that limit us from finding a much better answer.

Non-Linear Thinking

Non-linear thinking, a relatively new term, is vague enough (perhaps naturally so) that a simple google search will yield more beatings-around-the-bushes than formal definitions for the phrase. I think of it as follows:

Human thought characterized by expansion in multiple directions, rather than in one direction, and based on the concept that there are multiple starting points from which one can apply logic to a problem.

Non-linear thinking is less constrictive – letting the creative side of you run rampant because of its inherent lack of structure. It’s kind of like letting a puppy run wild on a walk up a mountain – anything of interest will be thoroughly investigated (and perhaps peed on) before jumping to the next, possibly non-related subject! It’s very much like brainstorming – allowing thought to flow, unhindered, in attempts to arrive upon something special in the process.

Non-linear thought increases possible outcomes by not being so certain about the starting point for any logic process. Non-linear thinkers tend to jump forward, and from side to side through the steps of a project, in an effort to see the big picture and tackle those areas where they have the most interest. Where non-linear thinking falters is in finally carrying out the required action, because as a thought process it often encourages a user to agonize incessantly over where to start (that agreed upon truth, from which logic can be applied and action can be taken).

A new form of digital presentation created by the folks at Prezi.com is a great example of non-linear and linear thinking in action. Why? Because rather than a linear slide show, it’s ultimately a picture, into which you can zoom in and out, infinitely. It allows you to present a product, concept, or argument in a logically by moving from location to location what is essentially group of images, but at any point you can zoom out and suddenly, “See the big picture” takes on a whole new meaning – Check it out!

In Conclusion

Again, as in my introduction, I stress the importance of both processes. And what I mean by this is maybe it’s important to have both types of thinkers on a team. Use non-linear thought to reexamine starting points and increase the possibility of finding the best option, and use linear thinkers and their efficient logic-based reasoning, once a starting point has been established, to get the job done in a timely manner. Whatever mixture of these two processes you prefer, take responsibility for your choices and learn from your mistakes, and I’ll bet on your success.

~Cecil “Chuck” McCumber

PS – What is linear thinking? What is non-linear thinking? Want to take a shot at your own definition (like I did)? I’d love your feedback! Comment below!

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105 Comments

  1. I’m pretty much a non-linear thinker. I was in a situation where a linear thinker who understood the Socratic method wanted to “find out about” me. Her starting point was that there was something wrong with me which she was going to get me to agree with (I figured all this out later). We were only about a half dozen questions into the process and I could see exactly where it was going and how erroneous her conclusions about me would be if we got there, so I just said, “Oh, I can see where this is going and I’m not going there.” And, boy, did she cook up something special for me after that!

    I found some useful stuff on different thinking styles (do a search on Four Thinking Styles) which are – Concrete Sequential, Concrete Random, Abstract Sequential, and Abstract Random. Very useful information . . .

  2. nerds

  3. Hi 12yearold: thank you for calling us nerds. You do know it is not in any way insulting to someone who values intelligence, right?

    Response to Chris: I am a non-linear thinker as well, try explaining something to a linear thinker! Wow that is hard. It is hugely important in communication that you understand the thought process of the person you are talking to before embarking on your explanation. Poor girl was so confused….

  4. I am a non linear thinker in a linear type of world. I am the one who can find the most logical solution to a difficult problem while cutting through the processes that you would need to follow to do a complicated problem. Once you become adept with your position, your logical starting point does not necessarily need to be A + B = C…you can instead know that C is the logical outcome so why bother with A and B. We both come to the same conclusion…but, I can see the end because I have been working with A + B = C so long that it seems those first two steps are not necessary. People who are linear find the non linear as odd balls…Why is our train of though so wrong when too much structure inhibits creative thought? Further it is easier to put a non linear person on notice, so to speak, because they truly are a threat to every strict linear thinker. I think you find the importance for linear thought in mathematics, chemistry, genetics, etc. It is an important thought process to those sciences. However, a strict linear thinker finds it more difficult to understand those who think different. My best friend in the whole world in linear…because we took a long time to become best friends, we were able to see the value of each others thought processes.

  5. Lol. There is no such thing as non-linear thought. Fools who imagine themselves to be non-linear thinkers don’t know what they are talking about. It is not possible to have two different thoughts at the same time-if u do u are probably mentally ill, or very confused. Most have no idea of the actual nature of thought at all, but imagine themselves to be some intelligent wonder capable of things(non-linear thought) others are not- a common self delusion. This is how and why we see time as linear, because that is the nature of thought.

  6. difficulties defining terms and actions, without brash initial conclusions like… “no such thing as non linear thought”… wasn’t Xerox invented from a dream (non linear thought) of the subconscious?

    non linear or circular thought or random thought… as many discoveries happen… BY ACCIDENT, non linear thought

  7. Hey Neil.

    Sounds like you are one of those folks who, being solidly linear of thought pattern, decide that nonlinear folks are just those bad at thinking in a logical manner, so making up some sort of excuse. Such is typical of linear thought, by definition: it is incapable even of comprehending the existence of anything outside its extremely narrow field of view.

    There are proven scientific examples of the differences of linear and lateral thought. Linear thinking people are, for instace, very good at processing details within a picture, whereas the lateral minded person will process larger, overall shapes that a linear thinking person ignores completely, yet may have difficulty with the details.

    The linear minded person is very good at worming their way through life like a horse with blinders on, going from step a to b to c, because it is directly in front of their face, while the lateral minded person may actually have trouble doing this but is very good at very accurately jumping about between disparate points within a field, oft with minimal information provided. Note that this does not guarantee success in an endeavor where reliable results must be provided like clockwork, but it is none the less a reality.

    I’ve had a similar conversation before with one fellow who was insistent that people only learned in a linear way, and then when I presented him with the fact that people, such as myself can off bypass the prophecies he was claiming were always required for a learning, he got very very angry, decrying anyone who was non-linear as a statistical anomaly, despite such representing a fairly sizeable percentage of any given population. Why? Because he was a very rigid linear thinker, incapable of understanding that people might think about things any way other than how he did.

    Give me a few details and I will spot analogies. That’s how I, and probably many other and probably many other lateral minded folks think: by analogy. This does not mean that I am able to provide deliverables in a regular predictable manner based on standard logical prosesses, though I can to a lesser degree than a purely linear person (and most people are probably a mix of both thought processes tho they will lean one way or the other in most cases). I oft, however, quite successfully spot immediate solutions **without ever having trained the intermediate details at all**, or predict potential issues or advantages far down the road that no one else does, even with minimal information.

    Lateral thinking is very very real even though you are lacking experience in it.

  8. Pure linear thinkers are diversity killers and lack the ability to change their way of thinking. A linear thinker believes in seeing the world as “one truth and one reality based on theories, evidence and facts” and this really reflects their lacking ability to see, understand and respect other peoples perspectives/realities/opinions (multiverse).
    Saying that you’re both a linear and non-linear thinker is perhaps a paradox – Try digg into ‘social constructionism’, ‘system thinking’ etc. and you will realise that this is a non-linear understanding of the world(multi-worlds) which ultimately changes your ways of process-thinking, seeing and understanding phenomenons, people etc. and then look into the concept of ‘realism’ which is linear thinking and which also is a contrary to ‘social constructionism’.

  9. I am a music/guitar teacher/performer/composer and think a lot about how to think about teaching/learning/creating Thank you for the great platform.
    We must strive for balance.
    In response to the the definition::: “a process of thought following known cycles or step-by-step progression where a response* to a step must be elicited before another step is taken”
    I feel that
    * The study of an expressive art form should allow a multiple choice. The linearity would then “branch out” as in a tree. Much more organic, and balanced. Think HORIZONTICALLY ! Bertrand Laurence, Cambridge MA

  10. What do linear thinkers do when they hit a road block? I wonder also if you can buy a linear chess set.

  11. I do both.

    I’m 50-50.

    Depending upon the substance of the problem or issue I may tack it down logically at pertinent points, then go back and fill in the blanks as my mind expands to search out alternative means, thoughts, ideas etc, once again I find the propensity to categorize people: Classification A
    Classification B, forgetting we’re all on a number line rather than in those boxes mentioned at the beginning of the article, creates in me feelings of frustration because the differencees we all have in our thinking is more than linear vs. Nonlinear. And when one does not fit into either but rather both frustration sets in to be categorized something you’re not, the feeling is “what about me? What about me? You forgot about me” :-)

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