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.
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.
Imagine that every time you saw a teacup, you had to figure out what it was, as though you were seeing it for the first time. That would be extremely inconvenient.
Luckily, our minds can make shortcuts by creating a memory of an item and its habitual use. The moment we see an object, the motor cortex in our brains activates in anticipation of using it in a standard way. That means that we don’t need to hesitate about reaching for a teacup when we feel like having 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.
So far, so good.
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.
Duncker’s Candle Experiment
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 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?
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—the 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 like 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 trying to think about alternate ways to approach 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 out of 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, so it 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.