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Functional Fixedness – How You Fail To Be Creative

Functional Fixedness – How You Fail To Be Creative

“Functional fixedness is the bias which makes you think of only standard ways to use an object”

Imagine I hand you a roll of toilet paper. What are the different ways you can use it? Before you read ahead, think of some ideas.

Done? Ok, if you’re like most people, you would have thought of various ways to use the paper like create a craft, pelt someone with a crushed ball, and so on. But did you think of using the inner cardboard roll inside? That cylindrical piece has many applications such as a seed planter, pencil stand, and whatnot. A google search will help you find articles that list 35 such home hacks.

But your mind fails to think of using the cardboard roll by instinct, doesn’t it? That’s because of an effect called functional fixedness.

Functional fixedness

What is functional fixedness?

Functional fixedness is the tendency to use an object only for the purpose it was designed for. Our mind prevents us from thinking of new ways to use familiar objects. Our thoughts remain within a closed box of standard methods, thereby stopping out of the box thinking.

You will find yourself sticking to conventional answers in daily life. For example:

  • Looking for a heavy object to screw the nail into the wall when any object with a hard surface might work too
  • Finding a screwdriver to tighten a screw when a knife, spoon or a coin can do the same

Interestingly, children below the age of 5, do not show the signs of the effect. They pick any object and use it the way they like. As they grow up, it is the adults around who restrict them into using each object in specific ways. Over the years, such information becomes a standard protocol to follow for the rest of their lives.

Related article: How to stop sticking to the norm

Research and experiments conducted

The effect was first observed in Gestalt psychology when mathematicians used standard methods to solve new problems.

Karl Duncker, who defined the effect as a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem”, was the first to conduct experiments back in 1945.

The candle and box of tacks

This was the most famous research conducted on functional fixedness. Why don’t you try the experiment yourself while reading the article?

So, you have a candle, matches and a box of pins(or thumbtacks).

You must find a way to light the candle on the wall. You can poke as many tacks on the wall as you like.

When Duncker gave participants the same exercise, most people tried to push the tack through the candle into the wall. Some tried melting wax to stick the candle. Very few people thought of using the box of nails as a holder for the candle. Participants considered the box’s function as an object that holds the pins. They failed to use it in a novel way to solve the problem.

Written version

In the early 2000s, Frank and Ramscar performed a written version of the experiment on Stanford undergraduates. The participants did not receive a real candle, matches, or tacks. They had to tackle the challenge given on paper. Under normal circumstances, 23% of the students solved the problem. When the researches underlined the word box, the percentage of correct answers doubled.

Various other variations of the written experiment showed that people fail to find creative ways to use an object unless prompted with a hint.

Other experiments

Two Cord Problem

Birch and Rabinowitz conducted a different experiment called the two cord problem. You are in a room that has 2 cords hanging from the ceiling and 2 heavy objects lying around. Neither of the ropes is long enough to reach the other.

If you had a companion, you could solve the problem by each of you pulling the thread to the maximum length. You must join those cords together alone.

The answer is to tie a heavy object to one chord, swing it like a pendulum while holding the other cord at the farthest length.

Barometer question

The barometer question demonstrated the functional fixedness of the person asking the question. American professor Alexander Calandra challenged students to use a barometer, a device used to measure air pressure, to find the height of a building.

The professor thought the only way to crack the problem was to use the air pressure difference at the bottom and top of the building. But students found various other valid answers.

One of them was measuring the building’s shadow and comparing it with the barometer’s. Another idea involved dropping the device from the top of the building and measuring the time taken to reach the floor. A witty student even suggested exchanging the barometer with the building’s superintendent for knowing the height.

Related article: How to apply empathy

A fun story on functional fixedness

A story of a toothpaste factory made the rounds on the internet a few years ago. Though it isn’t a real story, here is how it goes.

A large company used to produce thousands of toothpaste every day and sell them at the supermarkets. Due to the large scale demand, machines handled the entire manufacturing process, from sealing the tubes to enclosing them in cardboard boxes.

The problem the company faced was, some occasional glitches in the machinery led to toothpaste boxes with no tube inside. When such boxes reached the customers, it tarnished the image of the brand.

The team decided to solve the problem by placing more machinery in the final part of the process. They attached a weighing device to the conveyor belt(the table with a moving top). When any toothpaste box weighed less than a specific weight, the machine beeped. The company employed one person who had to remove the empty box whenever the alarm sounded.

A few weeks later, the boss of the company visited the factory for inspection. He noticed this employee busy smiling and chatting on his phone. The boss stomped his way with a clenched fist to confront the person. “We spent so much on the machinery and look at this guy least bothered to pick up the empty boxes,” he yelled mentally.

As soon as the boss reached the machine, he spotted a table fan. It turned out that the employee was bored of waiting for the occasional beep to pick a box up. Instead, he had placed a table fan at an appropriate speed next to the machine. When the box was empty, the blow of air would push it off the table. The other boxes went through undisturbed.

Sometimes, simple solutions are smarter and more cost-effective.

How functional fixedness effects you

1. Doing the same thing the same way

You have your job or regular activities you perform throughout the day. You might even have a certain way of doing what you do in the workplace. But, when was the last time you asked yourself, why are you following that method?

Often, you follow a conventional method thinking that is the only way to get the job done. You fail to think if you can find a better way to accomplish the task.

A hypothetical experiment, called the monkey paradigm, explains the concept in a humorous way. A group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage which had a ladder in the center with bananas on top.

As soon as the monkeys entered the cage, they tried to climb up the ladder to grab the bananas. But, whenever any monkey stepped on the ladder, all the scientists sprayed the other monkeys with cold water. After a few rounds of drenching themselves, all the monkeys learned to resist the temptation of food to avoid the shower.

After some time, one of the monkeys was replaced. As soon as he stopped in, he thought to himself, “My companions are so dumb. They haven’t even seen the bananas.” Proud of his observational skills, the monkey proceeded to the ladder. Before he could place a step, all the others ganged together and beat him up. After trying a few times, the new monkey learned not to attempt grabbing the food even if he did not understand why.

A little later, scientists replaced a second monkey, who did exactly what the previous one did. Yeah, he did get beaten up pretty bad. The only difference was the monkey who had entered last time also joined in bashing him up even though he did not know why.

Over time, the scientists replaced the cage with 5 new monkeys one after another. Whenever a new monkey tried to climb the ladder, the others would beat him up. If someone were to ask them why, they would say, “I don’t know. Isn’t that how we do things here?”

If I asked you why you do your tasks the way you do, would you have the same answer? Maybe not for all of them. But I guess, you’ll have some jobs you do the conventional way without knowing why.

2. Assuming your way is the only right way

Just like the professor with the barometer problem, we often think our solution is the best. Such behavior is typical in interviews. An interviewer drafts questions expecting a predetermined answer. The questions can range anywhere from technical challenges to out of the box puzzles.

The candidates who have a different method or answer do not make the cut. The interviewer fails to consider the different work environments, processes, and constraints every company goes through. Failing to find the expected reply is not a sign of incompetence but a difference in approach.

The method the candidate uses to answer the question can lead to a better outcome if you think with an open mind. Besides, the interviewer had time to prepare the question and the answer. The candidate only has a few tense seconds to align his thought into the exact direction the interviewer had. Other factors, such as how comfortable the candidate is feeling can also influence the reply.

Such siloed thinking interviews are more of a reflection of the poor skills of the interviewer than the candidate.

The same thought process applies in marriages, friends, and a group of acquaintances.

3. Chasing a goal with a plan

People have the habit of chasing a goal with a predetermined approach. Having a plan isn’t wrong. Pursuing a target without a plan is indeed a poor approach. But when the plan fails, most people give up. If I had to draw a flow chart to depict how people pursue their goals, it would look like this.

The successful people have one minor change of using a failed approach as feedback. They learn from the experience and try another method. The process turns into a neverending loop of different ideas until one produces the desired result.

If you have a goal and your plan A does not work, do not give up right away. The English alphabet has more letters, all the way from B to Z.

Related article: How to plan your day

How to avoid functional fixedness?

1. Awareness

Like any other cognitive bias, overcoming a preconceived thinking style involves awareness. If you do not know you’re under the effect of functional fixedness, you’ll never try to fight it. Now that you understand how the effect influences you, you are a step ahead already.

2. Separate the task from the solution

For some of the regular tasks, you already have a fixed answer in mind. Want a nail on the wall? You try to find a hammer. Broke the jar of salt? Buy a new one.

Don’t start by using the standard answer or even brainstorm for possible solutions.

Start by breaking the task down to the grassroots level. Let’s take the example of the candle box problem. Your job is to make the candle stand straight. If you ask yourself what the basics of the task are, you come up functions like:

Find something to stick through the candle or find an object to place it over.

Once you understand that you can use an object to place the candle on, your mind starts hunting for options. At that point, identifying the box of tacks as one option becomes far easier.

Not always can you spot the non-obvious answer that easily. But, breaking down the task down to the bare basics helps you see the problem in a different light.

3. Erase previous trials from your mind

A common method of developing something successful is to improve on the previous approach iteratively. Software companies use that technique to keep improving their product.

When a customer expresses unhappiness over one part of the product, no developer goes back to build the code from scratch. He picks the concerned part and comes up with an improvement. These little changes produce a sublime product at the end.

While such an approach has led to many of the well-known inventions, it can also constrain your thinking into a narrow lane of ideas. When it comes to inventing something never done before, scrapping all your old methods can give you a fresh start. It can trigger a thought that solves the problem you’ve been struggling on.

Related article: How to make your brain think faster

4. Alternative uses

Some people cultivate the habit of regularly thinking of alternative uses of a product. A variation of the approach is to list down 5-10 random ideas everyday.

Though the tactic does not have a science-backed proof, it is a known method to boost your creative thinking skills. After all, your brain acts like the muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it gets.


Your mind, by instinct, will grab on to the most common method of solving a problem or completing a task. You have to help your brain think out of the box. The solution lies in questioning yourself.

Do not forget to keep asking yourself, “Is there a different way to do this?” Sometimes breakthroughs occur during the moments you least expect. Your brain is a masterpiece of millions of years of evolution. It has all the answers. All you need to do is ask the right questions.

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