The Truth About Functional Fixedness

Imagine yourself sitting down during a hot Sunday afternoon with a book in hand. Then, the power goes out and the A/C stops. Now, you’re sweating. What can you do? If your first instinct is not to use something, like the book in your hand, as a fan, you may have functional fixedness. Functional fixedness is described as 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 ability to make a decision or their judgment. A person with functional fixedness won’t be able to see any other use for a specific other than the use that it was intended to have.


For example, they will never use a book as a fan because a book is meant to be read. They can never use a pen to punch a hole in something because a pen is only meant for writing. This disorder 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, a person was given a candle, a box with thumbtacks in it, and a box of matches on a table near a wall. The person was instructed to 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.

Its influences on behaviors

Functional fixedness can cause troubles in both problem-solving and creativity. To solve problem, you shouldn’t be stuck in the mechanical thinking method. You search your mind for things that are supposed to work and how things are intended to be. Instead, you have to restructure everything with each new problem. When you’re facing a problem, you should be looking at how the problem is structured and try to assign things that are present new functions that will benefit the situation.

It decreases creativity because it stops people from thinking outside of the box. Most creative works and other inventions were somebody using something that’s already there and turn it into something else. Technological companies are excellent at thinking outside of the box. That’s one of the reasons why now people are able to write on computers or answer phone calls through their watches.

A person with functional fixedness will be unable to be both creative and solve problems effectively. That’s because they continuously go back to their one-way track. When they face a problem, they will keep coming back to it with the exact same solution because that’s the one that their mind tell them is supposed to work. This may cause them to never be able to overcome it on their own.

Overcoming functional fixedness

It may be necessary for you to overcome functional fixedness since it’s a limited way of thinking. There’s not a specific way that will work for everyone. The best solution would be brain exercises that help you to see beyond an object’s manufactured 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. You should avoid committing to any one solution or function for anything.


While functional fixedness may present itself as a problem that can hinder your life, it has its benefits. It helps us to associate certain objects with certain tasks and create a shortcut. If you need to cut something, you already know that’s the function of the 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 confusing in life.

Functional fixedness is not always a harmful system error. It many instances, it’s beneficial. However, it should be avoided in cases of problem-solving and creativity. Anytime you need to think outside of the box, it’s important to avoid functional fixedness or you’ll be stuck going in circles.

Theresa Smith, CASAC, CRC, LMFT, LPC

Theresa Smith is a relationship expert with over 20 years of experience. She has worked in different areas including clinical work, and more recently a writer. She has a passion for happy relationships and feels that it’s an attainable goal for everyone.

Theresa has several professional credentials centered around mental health, psychology, dating, relationships, and addiction treatment. She has written thousands of articles and many e-books on many facets of dating and relationships.