Functional fixedness refers to a type of cognitive bias that limits a person’s ability to see more than one use for an object. It’s a systematic error that can affect a person’s judgment or their ability to make a decision. When you notice that someone is unable to see any other use for a specific item other than the use that it was intended to have, you are observing functional fixedness.
One classic example is when someone does not use a book as a fan because a book is meant to be read. It’s not that they have particular objection to using a book as a fan, it’s just that they simply cannot see it as a possible option.
Another example might be if you need to punch a hole into a cardboard box, so you look all over your home for an object that might help you complete that task. While you may see a pen, an instrument that can easily be used for punching holes, right in front of you, you never even consider it. Due to functional fixedness, you view a pen as an object that is only meant for writing.
Origins of Functional Fixedness
This term was first studied by the German therapist Karl Duncker. He created the Candle Problem which is meant to test a person’s functional fixedness. In the experiment, students were given a challenge involving a candle, a box with thumbtacks in it, and a box of matches on a table near a wall. Participants were instructed to figure out how they may light the candle and attach it to the wall in a way that no wax would get on the table.
While people have tried many different ways, the only solution was to attach the box to the wall and set the candle on top of it. Most people couldn’t arrive to this solution. However, in another experiment in which the box was empty, people were able to arrive to this solution quicker and in larger numbers. Now, the box no longer had a set function in the people’s mind. Therefore, changing the smallest detail can reduce functional fixedness.
The Challenges of Functional Fixedness
Functional fixedness can result in challenges in both problem-solving and creativity. It gets in the way of people thinking outside of the box. Most creative works and other inventions involved someone using something that’s already there in a new way. Engineers at technology companies are excellent at thinking outside of the box. Consider how we write on computers, rather than on paper, and can answer phone calls through smartwatches. These are examples of innovations that broke free of the the conventional ways we viewed certain objects.
When someone is having a hard time solving a problem due to functional fixedness, they will keep coming back to it with the exact same solution because that’s the one that their mind tells them is supposed to work. It may cause them to never be able to solve it on their own.
Overcoming Functional Fixedness
You may find that you regularly exhibit functional fixedness and it’s limiting your ability to solve problems. There’s no specific solution that will work for everyone. The best options is to try brain exercises that help you to see beyond an object’s intended function. You may have to breakdown the object into all the different parts that make it so that you can see it from a different light.
Also, you can try holding up an object to a friend with an occupation or interests that different than yours. Ask them all the possible ways in which they might use that object. Repeating this exercise can help you learn to see things more open-mindedly and ultimately improve your problem-solving skills.
While functional fixedness may present itself as a problem, it has its place. It helps us to associate certain objects with certain tasks and create shortcuts. If you need to cut something, you already know that’s the function of a knife. You don’t have to try out every single object in your kitchen every time to see which one can do the task. So, you do need some level of functional fixedness to avoid frustration and confusions in life.
Functional fixedness is not always a harmful system error. It many instances, it’s beneficial. However, it should be avoided in situations where complex problem-solving and creative skills are required. Anytime you need to think outside of the box, it’s important to avoid functional fixedness or you’ll be stuck going in circles.
- Duncker, K. (1945). On problem-solving. Psychological Monographs, 58(5), i–113. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0093599
- Munoz-Rubke, F., Olson, D., Will, R., & James, K. H. (2018b). Functional fixedness in tool use: Learning modality, limitations and individual differences. Acta Psychologica, 190, 11–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2018.06.006