Understanding Functional Fixedness And Its Role In Creative Problem-Solving

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated January 24, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Functional fixedness is a cognitive and psychological bias that may limit a person to seeing any object or issue only in the way it has traditionally been used or seen.

For example, you might think of a pair of scissors and paper. Scissors are often fixed in their function as paper cutters, which is their traditional use. Paper might be seen as a drawing, creating, or writing tool. Similarly, a car is often fixed in its function to serve as a means of transport.

In some cases, items are used for different purposes. For example, Elon Musk used a car for a purpose unrelated to regular transport, which may challenge the idea of function fixedness. Functional fixedness might stand in the way of solving problems and coming up with creative solutions. Looking at items with new eyes and thinking of ways to develop a new purpose could be the key to invention and ingenuity.

Rigid Thinking Can Keep You From Fulfilling Your Potential

A Brief Background Of Functional Fixedness

Functional fixedness, or functional fixity, as it was previously known, was coined around 1935 by German-born Gestalt therapist Karl Duncker. Duncker's contribution to psychology was his extensive work in understanding cognition and problem-solving. Functional fixedness, studied in cognitive psychology, originated in Duncker's seminal study of how adults solved various mathematical and practical problems. 

The study was published in his book Psychologie des produktiven Denkens in 1935. Duncker argued that while functional fixedness is a necessary perceptive and cognitive skill, it can hamper problem-solving and creativity. Later, in 1945, he became famous for the Candle Problem, devised to test a person's functional fixedness and ability to "think outside the box."

Duncker's Candle Problem And Thinking "Outside The Box"

The Candle Problem experiment involved a candle, a box with thumbtacks, and matches on a table close to a wall. Subjects were instructed to attach the candle to the wall so that wax would not drip onto the table when the candle was lit and to complete this task as fast as possible.

Many subjects tried unsuccessful creative methods, such as trying to pin the candle to the wall with a tack. Others melted the end of the candle and tried to stick it to the wall. Only some figured out the solution to this problem: empty the thumbtacks from the box, attach the box to the wall with a thumbtack, and make the candle stand upright in the box before lighting it.

From this experiment, Duncker derived that people have difficulty solving a problem when one object has a fixed function that must be changed for a solution to be found. In this instance, the successful subjects realized that the box was not only a container for the tacks but also a candle holder.

When Duncker repeated the experiment, placing the tacks outside the box, nearly all participants arrived at the solution faster. Changing one detail reduced the functional fixedness issue in this problem-solving experiment.

Functional Fixedness In Problem-Solving And Creativity

It can be illuminating to look at how Duncker viewed problem-solving. According to his process, there are seven stages of challenging functional fixedness, including the following.  

Stage One 

If a goal cannot be reached immediately through one's obvious or usual actions, it may be a problem. In Duncker's words, "a problem arises when a living creature has a goal but does not know how this goal is to be reached. There must be recourse to thinking whenever one cannot go from the given situation to the desired situation simply by action."  

Stage Two 

Problem-solving comprises phases, with each phase being a reformulation of the problem. Duncker describes this step by stating, "the solution of a new problem typically takes place in successive phases which (except the first phase) have, in retrospect, the character of a solution and (except the last phase), in prospect, that of a problem."

In summation, looking at multiple angles may help you understand a problem on a deeper level and formulate a strategy for tackling it. 

Stage Three 

The point or function of a solution is also considered its definition as a solution. Duncker wrote, "the functional value of a solution is indispensable for the understanding of its being a solution. It is exactly what is called the sense, the principle, or the point of the solution."

Stage Four 

Defining the principle of the solution is, in general, the first step in the process of solving it. According to Duncker, "the final form of an individual solution is, in general, not reached by a single step from the original setting of the problem; on the contrary, the principle, the functional value of the solution, typically arises first, and the final form of the solution in question develops only as this principle becomes more and more concrete successively."

Stage Five 

While progressing through phases to solve a problem, the mind may return to earlier phases. Duncker stated, "it will be realized that, in the transition to phases in another line, the thought process may range widely. Every such transition involves a return to an earlier phase of the problem; an earlier task is set anew; a new branching off from an old point in the family tree occurs. Sometimes a [subject] returns to the original setting of the problem, sometimes just to the immediately preceding phase."

Stage Six 

General heuristic methods may control each phase of problem-solving. Heuristics are processes or methods that allow a person to discover answers for themselves. Duncker claimed, "we can, therefore, say that 'insistent' analyses of the situation, especially the endeavor to vary appropriate elements meaningfully subspecies of the goal, must belong to the essential nature of a solution through thinking. We may call such relatively general procedures, 'heuristic methods of thinking.'"

Stage Seven 

The solution may depend on details specific to the problem. Using an object only for its stated function, or seeing problems only as they present themselves, can become a barrier to both problem-solving and creativity.

Problem-Solving

Duncker distinguished between mechanical and organic problem-solving. In his book, Psychologie des produktiven Denkens, he explained that mechanical thinking is not conducive to problem-solving. He wrote, "he who merely searches his memory for a 'solution of such-and-such problem' may remain just as blind to the inner nature of the problem-situation before him as a person who, instead of thinking himself, refers the problem to an intelligent acquaintance or an encyclopedia. Truly, these methods are not to be despised; for they have a certain heuristic value, and one can arrive at solutions in that fashion. But such problem-solving has little to do with thinking."

On the other hand, organic or productive thinking (or problem-solving) requires a reorganization of a problem and a structural understanding of the problem situation. It might require a person to look at an object or a problem in a way that assigns new functions, breaking away from its inherent functional fixedness.

For example, take the problem of a thin cloth. If you see cloth only for its usual cleaning function, you might not consider other uses. For example, if you are cold at a campsite and can't find your kindling, you might consider using a cleaning cloth doused in gas to start your fire. You solved the problem by considering other possibilities than what you are used to. Many engineers use this process in their work. 

Creativity

To explain how changing fixed-function thinking can lead to a creative solution, we may consider Elon Musk sending a Tesla car to space. 

All people may assign a fixed function to a Tesla car. It often serves as a means of transport from point A to B. Musk, an inventor and entrepreneur, invested his time and money to discover more economical and powerful ways to travel in space. To test the first rocket, Tesla's company developed the Falcon Heavy. The Falcon Heavy needed a payload.

Instead of choosing a conventional payload, such as a dummy cargo or passengers, he chose a car he designed and drove himself, a red Tesla roadster. Musk changed the function of the car (transport), so it served as a payload (solved a problem) and became a symbol bigger than its function (creativity). It may have also boosted sales for his brand. 

Creative people may be non-conforming and independent. Fixedness is not often a characteristic of creativity, so those who practice it may not showcase as much functional fixedness. Testing someone's functional fixedness is often used in psychological settings to measure creativity.

Creativity And Money

In the 1960s, Canadian Professor of Psychology, Sam Glucksberg, repeated Duncker's Candle Problem experiment. This time, however, he incentivized it with money. His findings were that monetizing the outcome hampered subjects' creative ability to solve the problem, and he thus concluded that money stifles creativity.

This notion was tested again in 2013 by Ramm and Torsvik, both in individuals and groups, but the researchers could not replicate Glucksberg's findings. Instead, they found that "…providing monetary rewards leaves performance unaltered. This is also somewhat surprising, at least for those who think monetary incentives always induce individuals to work harder and smarter."

Whether money hampers or does not affect creativity, both studies indicate that it does not improve or motivate creativity, which can be motivated by other factors.

Rigid Thinking Can Keep You From Fulfilling Your Potential

Addressing Functional Fixedness In Therapy

Functional fixedness is not a psychological condition that requires therapeutic intervention. However, therapists may have creative solutions to common mental health symptoms and daily stressors. If you're unsure where to turn in your life or how to solve problems effectively, consider enlisting assistance from a board-certified therapist. 

Although therapy has been traditionally carried out in an office environment, the functional fixedness of counseling is now changing. More individuals are trying online counseling as a creative form of therapy. A Berkeley study demonstrated that online therapy is a viable alternative to face-to-face counseling and is often as effective as traditional methods. In this study, participants reported a significant reduction in symptoms of depression. People who feel stuck in a depressive state may find value in working with a therapist to come up with creative solutions to their challenges.

In addition to its effectiveness, online therapy provides benefits that in-person therapy may not. Online therapy is often more affordable than in-person therapy, and online therapy grants a level of convenience, as you can meet from a location that suits you. 

Takeaway

Takeaway

Thanks to researchers like Duncker, we may better understand why some individuals struggle to envision creative solutions to enduring problems. At times, a new perspective can help enlighten us to a helpful idea. If you're hoping to gain a new perspective from a professional, consider reaching out to a counselor to learn more. 

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