Last week, a friend asked me whether I heard of the term “functional fixedness”. I recalled vaguely, many years back, a teacher telling me that functional fixedness could inhibit a person from arriving at the right conclusions.

So, what is functional fixedness?

I did some research and here’s what I found.

Functional fixedness means that you are fixed or rigid in your perceptions involving the uses of everyday objects. This rigidity inhibits your ability to see how these objects can be used in different ways.

All of us suffer from some degree of functional fixedness and there are ways to reduce this.

Functional fixedness

According to Wikipedia, functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used.

Many experiments have attested to the existence of functional fixedness. One such experiment, called the candle problem, was created by psychologist Karl Duncker (Mayer).

Duncker’s candle problem

In Duncker’s experiment, two groups of participants were required to mount a candle vertically on a screen to serve as a lamp.

Group 1 participants were given a box containing matches, a second box containing candles and a third box containing tacks.

Group 2 participants were given the matches, candles and tacks placed outside of the boxes.

Group 1 participants tried different steps but could not find the solution.

The correct solution to the problem was to melt wax onto the box, attach the candle to the box with the wax and finally tack the box to the screen.

Duncker observed that Group 2 participants, who were given the supplies placed outside of the boxes, were more likely to discover the solution than the participants in Group 1, who were given the supplies placed inside the boxes.

Duncker explained that “The placement of objects inside a box helped to fix its function as a container, thus making it more difficult for the participants to reformulate the function of the box and think of it as a support.” (Mayer).

This knowledge regarding functional fixedness can have a tremendous impact on your life, especially when you are solving work-related or personal-related problems. When looking for solutions, be aware that you may become locked into your thinking by your preconceptions based on past experience.

Here’s a YouTube video showing Duncker’s candle problem.

Buzan’s paper clip demonstration

Author Tony Buzan demonstrated the concept of functional fixedness by using a paper clip.

In his demonstration, Buzan asked participants to write down all the uses of a paper clip they could think of and he gave them one minute to do this. Most participants quickly wrote down “clipping paper together”. Other more creative participants wrote “opening locks”, “poking holes”, “wearing as a jewellry” and other uses.

The results showed that most participants wrote 4 to 5 uses. A small number of participants wrote 8 and more uses. For almost all participants, the main use of a paper clip was “clipping paper together”.

Buzan then asked participants to write down in one minute all the non-uses of a paper clip. In other words, write down what you can’t use a paper clip to do or use. The results were amazing in that most participants could write only 3 to 4 non-uses when the correct answer was an infinite number of non-uses.

Why infinite? Think of it this way: If you focus on the non-uses of a paper clip, you will think of what you cannot do with a paper clip. However, if you focus on another object, like a mobile phone, you will be able to write down the uses of a mobile phone like “phoning a friend”, “sending messages”, “telling the time” and many more mobile phone uses. Since these are the uses of a mobile phone, you can’t do them using a paper clip, They are, thus, the non-uses of a paper clip. And this number of non-users is huge.

Halpern’s bus driver problem

Halpern (1984) provided an example of how this fixation on irrelevant details may prevent us from solving problems. Halpern posed the following scenario:

Pretend you are a bus driver. You start with an empty bus. At your first stop, 3 men and 1 woman get on. At your second stop, 4 men and 3 women get on, while 1 man and 2 women get off. At your third stop, 2 men and 1 woman get on, while 2 men get off. At your fourth stop, 5 men get on and 2 women get off. What is the bus driver’s name?

While the above scenario is a humourous riddle, more importantly, it shows how fixating on the wrong elements may interfere with your concentration and your focus on your goals. This focus on goals is critical if you are going to be able to pay attention to the tasks at hand.

In the above riddle, the bus driver’s name is your name, since the first sentence said, “Pretend you are a bus driver.”

How to break out of functional fixedness

Here are some ways to break out of functional fixedness and increase your creative thinking.

Practise with objects

You can decrease your functional fixedness by developing similar exercises with objects. Start off by using a simple object, such as a paper clip. Increase the possibilities by using several objects and begin thinking of new relationships between the objects.

This is good practice since you are usually faced with complex problems involving relationships between many objects or many people. By moving from exercises using single objects to relationships between objects, you can devise exercises that may become more relevant to your problem-solving needs.

Another way in which these exercises may be beneficial is by practising them as group brainstorming sessions.

Practise using goals

The concept of functional fixedness also relates to the problem of attaining goals, as shown in Halpern’s bus driver problem. Often, you may find yourself fixated on needless or irrelevant information that may obscure your goals.

Similarly, you’ll find people in business bombarded with an overabundance of information that may be irrelevant or unnecessary for them to accomplish the goals.

For instance, it may not be important for all employees to be given information that may not be relevant to their particular tasks. If you give an employee an overabundance of information that is not pertinent to their desired goal, the employee may not be able to focus attention on the actual task at hand and may have problems concentrating.

The results of the studies above provide strong support for Buzan’s emphasis on exercises such as the uses for a paper clip and the relationship of these exercises to problems concerning reaching our goals. We often become locked into a way of thinking and this clouds our perceptions of the goal and the methods of reaching it.

Practise using the General Parts Technique

Another way to deal with the functional fixedness problem is the General Parts Technique (GPT) developed by psychologist Tony McCaffrey (McCaffrey). The aim of the GPT is to help you overcome functional fixedness by becoming more aware of other uses of an object and its components.

By breaking down an object into their components, you can study them separately. Using GPT, the function of the object is no longer fixed and you can now come up with other uses.

This technique of breaking down an object into their components to study their uses is covered in our Creative Thinking Workshop.

Conclusion

By practising exercises such as Buzan’s paper clip demonstration, you will be able to break out of your own functional fixedness and improve your creative thinking.

Your own style of thinking of functional fixedness may be very personal. By being exposed to other’s input, you may be able to see how combining your own thinking with their thinking can lead to new relationships and perceptions that are not as easily discovered when you are working alone.

You can find the concept of functional fixedness and related exercises in many textbooks in the area of Cognitive Psychology, such as Anderson’s text.

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References

  • Anderson, J. R. Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications. WH Freeman & Company, NY, 1985.
  • Buzan, T. “Productive Thinking.” Adapted with permission.
  • Duncker, K. “On Problem-Solving.” Psychological Monographs, No. 270. American Psychological Association, 1945
  • Halpern, D. F. Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey; 1984.
  • Mayer, R. E. Thinking, Problem-Solving, Cognition. WH Freeman & Company, NY; 1983.
  • McCaffrey et al. “Innovation Relies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness.” Psychological Science, 2012.