Functional Fixedness (Definition + Examples)

If you’re here, you are probably researching functional fixedness to help you solve a problem or write a paper. Have no fear, since this page’s purpose is to give you everything you need to know, including a few functional fixedness examples!

What is Functional Fixedness?

Functional fixedness is a type of mental obstacle that makes us see objects as exclusively functioning in a traditional way. We cannot get past these fixed functions of objects or tools. This stunts our creativity and may hold us back from seeing an object’s full potential.

functional fixedness

Why Do We Experience Functional Fixedness?

Functional fixedness, like other biases and heuristics, makes it easier for our brains to understand the world around us. Often, we can rely on information that we have already received about an object to use it properly. If you looked at a teacup every morning and wondered, “What can this be used for?” you’d likely waste a lot of time in the morning when you could be making tea. We allow ourselves to make a “mental shortcut” when we see that teacup and automatically see it as a vessel for our tea.

These mental shortcuts, called heuristics in psychology, are indispensable. Knowing exactly how to use an object saves time and effort and makes our day-to-day life easier. Here’s the tricky part. Although we can agree that seeing an object for its primary purpose—a teacup for drinking tea—is necessary, not being able to take its use out of context can have many disadvantages.

Examples of Functional Fixedness Holding Us Back

Say you have a blunt kitchen knife that you need to sharpen, however, you don’t own a knife sharpener. Would you think of using the unglazed ring around the bottom of your teacup? After all, it has the same surface as a sharpening stone. Coming up with this alternative use for a teacup would quickly solve your problem. Otherwise, you would have to look for a “real” knife sharpener while continuing to use your cup only for drinking tea.

The moment we see an object, the motor cortex in our brains activates in anticipation of using it in a standard way. That means we don’t need to hesitate about reaching for a teacup when we feel like having tea. But that also means when you’re looking for a knife sharpener, you’re likely to glaze over that teacup because you don’t take a mental shortcut from teacups to knife sharpeners. (Well, now you might!)

It’s important to be aware of functional fixedness because overcoming it could be the key to solving a problem.

Examples of Overcoming Functional Fixedness in Everyday Life

You might identify these examples as “life hacks,” but they are all forms of pushing past functional fixedness and seeing uses for everyday objects in new lights.

  • Want to keep your door open? Tie a rubber band around it!
  • Need to prop up your phone? Use upside-down sunglasses.
  • Place a pool noodle under your child’s fitted sheet to prevent them from rolling out of bed.
  • Worried about your gear stick getting too hot in your car? Put a koozie over it!
  • Need a last-minute speaker? Cups (plastic and glass) and toilet paper rolls make a great alternative.
  • Preparing to serve condiments at a party but don’t want to waste dishes? Place your condiments or sauces in a cupcake tin!
  • Use a shoe rack to hang cleaning supplies.
  • Clothespins are a great way to hold onto nails before you start hammering!
  • Did your flip-flop fall apart because the hole is too big? Use a bread clip to keep the strap in place. (Bread clips are also a great way to organize and separate cords.)
  • Looking for tiny things within your carpet? Roll some pantyhose or spandex over your vacuum to attract them without sucking them into your vacuum!
  • Use your seat warmer to keep food warm after you pick it up from a restaurant!
  • Hair straighteners make great collar irons in a pinch.
  •  Don’t have a juicer? Use tongs to get everything out of lemons or limes!

See how much you might have been missing out on? If all these hacks are within our grasp, what other uses could you think up for everyday items?

functional fixedness candle example

Who Discovered Functional Fixedness?

The term “functional fixedness” was coined in 1935 by German Gestalt therapist Karl Duncker who contributed to psychology with his extensive work on understanding cognition and problem-solving.

Duncker’s Candle Experiment

Duncker conducted a famous cognitive bias experiment that measured the influence of functional fixedness on our problem-solving abilities.

He handed the participants a box of thumbtacks, a candle, and matches. He then asked them to find a way to attach the lit candle to a wall so that the wax wouldn’t drip on the floor. The solution consisted in removing the tacks from the box, tacking the box to the wall, and placing the candle upright in the box.

Pretty simple, right?

Duncker's Candle solution

But most participants couldn’t solve this problem. They saw the box only as something that was used for holding tacks. Duncker observed a kind of “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem” in these participants. To find a solution, they would first need to overcome the tendency towards the psychological obstacle that was holding them back—functional fixedness.

Functional Fixedness and Problem Solving

Functional fixedness is practical in everyday life and crucial in building expertise and specialization in fields where it’s important to come up with quick solutions. But as we saw in Duncker’s experiment, this type of cognitive constraint is the enemy of creativity. Functional fixedness stops us from seeing alternative solutions and makes problem-solving more difficult. 

Functional fixedness can become a genuine problem among professionals. In fact, research shows that functional fixedness is one of the most significant barriers to innovation within large organizations. If your job is to produce innovative solutions, being able to think “outside the box” is a must.

So why do we become limited when it comes to using objects?

Children, especially those under the age of 5, are not as biased as adults. As we know only too well, toddlers won’t hesitate to turn a wall into a blank canvas for their works of art. But because they are constantly being corrected, children become more functionally fixed over time. Eventually, they realize that the only acceptable support to draw on is paper.

As we gain more experience and knowledge, we become increasingly fixated on the predetermined use of objects and tools. And the more we practice using them in certain ways, the harder it is to see other alternatives.

Knowledge and experience replace imagination and our ability to see an object for anything other than its original purpose.

How to Overcome Functional Fixedness?

The good news is, functional fixedness is not a psychological disorder that needs therapeutic intervention. We can train our minds to get over the mental set, that is, the approach to problem-solving based on past experiences.

There are a few methods that can help break down functional fixedness and develop creative thinking:

Practicing creative thinking

The more often you try to see novel uses for everyday objects, the easier the process will eventually become. Let’s go back to the teacup. What other usages except for drinking tea (and sharpening knives) can you think of? With a little imagination, the same cup can become a paperweight, candle holder, cookie-cutter, bird feeder, and even a phone sound amplifier.

Practicing helps develop our ability to think creatively. It encourages something called divergent thinking, a term defined in 1967 by the American psychologist J. P. Guilford.

Contrary to convergent thinking, which focuses on finding a single solution, divergent thinking is a creative process where a problem is solved using strategies that deviate from commonly used ones.

Changing the context

Getting a fresh perspective is often useful when thinking about alternate approaches to a task. In a professional setting, this can mean brainstorming in a group or involving individuals from other disciplines to share their points of view.

Considering a problem from a different angle prompts us to think creatively.

Focusing on features instead of function

Another way of breaking away from habitual ways of looking at objects is to consider what they are made of instead of concentrating on their function. List all the different characteristics of an item and you might come up with its alternative uses. A teacup is made of ceramic, which can be broken down into pieces to create a mosaic.

This approach helps combat functional fixedness by focusing on the object itself while distancing ourselves from the mechanics of its intended use.

Other Biases and Heuristics That Hold Us Back

Functional fixedness is not the only “mental shortcut” holding us back. If we allow ourselves to think beyond what appears to be the “obvious answer,” we may do more than what we could have ever imagined!

Bandwagon Effect

It’s easy to agree with what other people think. Meetings go much faster when everyone comes to an agreement right away. Plus, if one person likes the idea, it’s probably not so bad, right? Well, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the bandwagon effect encourages us to go along with what everyone else is doing. (It’s easy for us to “hop on the bandwagon,” as they say.” Will you and your colleagues come to a better solution if you debate a few more options? Are you just agreeing to something because everyone else is?

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Think you know a lot about a subject? Think again. The Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that the less we actually know about a subject, the more confident we are in our abilities. Let’s say you go to a rock climbing gym for the first time. You look at the wall and think, “I can get the hang of this quickly!” After a few sessions, you learn that there are different grips and ways of moving your body that you would have never thought of before! The initial false sense of confidence is a result of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Confirmation Bias

Once we come to a decision, we are likely to search for “evidence” that confirms that we are right. If you have decided to vote for a certain political candidate, for example, you may only seek out news articles and information that confirms that they are the best candidate for the job. If you decide to leave your job, you may start focusing on the worst parts of the job. Don’t let the confirmation bias prevent you from seeing all sides of an argument!

Not all biases are inherently bad, but they can hold us back. When you’re approaching a big decision or trying to solve a problem, evaluate how biases could be influencing your thinking. Can you push past them? Can you try something new and unexpected?

Practical Psychology

Practical Psychology began as a collection of study material for psychology students in 2016, created by a student in the field. It has since evolved into an online blog and YouTube channel providing mental health advice, tools, and academic support to individuals from all backgrounds. With over 2 million YouTube subscribers, over 500 articles, and an annual reach of almost 12 million students, it has become one of the most popular sources of psychological information.

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