Understanding Functional Fixedness And How It Influences Behavior

By Patricia Oelze

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Michelle Lind

Source: pxhere.com

Functional fixedness is a cognitive and psychological bias that limits a person to seeing any object or issue only in the way it has traditionally been used or seen. Think, for example, of a pair of scissors and paper - most everyone understands that the scissors are fixed in their function as cutters of paper, which is their traditional use. Similarly, a car is fixed in its function to serve as a means of transport, its traditional function. Unless you're Elon Musk, of course, then a car can be used in a different way, for a purpose completely different than transport, which brings us to important aspects of functional fixedness - problem solving and creativity. More about this later.

Brief Background of Functional Fixedness

Functional fixedness, or functional fixity, as it was previously known, was coined circa 1935 by German-born Gestalt therapist Karl Duncker. Duncker's greatest contribution to psychology was his extensive work in understanding cognition and problem-solving.

Functional fixedness, which is studied in the field of 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 posthumously became famous for the Candle Problem, devised to test a person's functional fixedness, and their 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 in it, and matches on a table close to a wall. Subjects were instructed to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that wax would not drip onto the table when the candle is lit, and to complete this task as fast as possible.

Source: pixabay.com

Many subjects tried creative methods that were unsuccessful, 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 real solution to this problem, which was to empty the thumbtacks from the box, then attach the box to the wall with a thumbtack, and then 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 could also be used as a holder for the candle.

When Duncker repeated the experiment, this time placing the tacks outside the box, nearly all the participants arrived at the solution, and much quicker too. Simply changing one detail reduced the functional fixedness issue in this problem-solving experiment.

Functional Fixedness in Problem Solving and Creativity

It is illuminating to look at how Duncker saw 'problem-solving.'

The Process of Problem Solving, as developed by Duncker

  1. If a goal cannot be reached immediately through one's obvious or usual actions, it becomes 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. Whenever one cannot go from the given situation to the desired situation simply by action, then there must be recourse to thinking. (By action, we here understand the performance of obvious operations.)"
  2. Problem-solving comprises phases, with each phase being a reformulation of the problem. Duncker describes this step as follows: "… 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."
  3. The point or function of a solution is also its definition as 'solution.' "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."
  4. Defining the principle of the solution is, in general, the first step in the process of solving it. "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."

Source: pixabay.com

  1. While progressing through phases to solve a problem, the mind returns to earlier phases."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."
  1. Each phase of problem-solving is controlled by general heuristic methods(heuristic: processes or methods that allow a person to discover answers for themselves). "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.'"
  2. The solution depends on details specific to the problem."Thus, every solution takes place, so to speak, on the concrete, specific substratum of its problem situation."

Using an object only for its stated function, or seeing problems only as they present themselves, can become a barrier to both problems 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 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."

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


To explain how changing fixed-function thinking can lead to a creative solution, let's use Musk and his Tesla in space as an example again:

Source: pxhere.com

  • All people, including Musk, assign a fixed function to a Tesla car - it serves as means of transport from point A to B.
  • Musk, an inventor, and entrepreneur invests his time and money to discover more economical and powerful ways for traveling 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 that he designed and drove himself - a red Tesla roadster.
  • Musk changed the function of the car (transport), so it served as payload (solved a problem) and became a symbol bigger than its function (creativity). It probably had the added benefit of greatly boosting Tesla sales.

Creative people are, at their core, non-conformative and independent. Fixedness is not their true nature, which is why they are more likely to show less 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, but this time, he incentivized it with money. His findings were, surprisingly, 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 leave performance unaltered. This is also somewhat surprising, at least for those who think monetary incentives always induce individuals to work harder and smarter."

Getting Help

Functional fixedness is not a psychological disorder that needs therapeutic intervention, but if you feel stuck in a relationship, or if you feel you need creative problem-solving, consider enlisting assistance from one of BetterHelp's board-registered counselors or therapists. A Berkeley study demonstrated that BetterHelp online therapy is a viable alternative to face-to-face counseling.

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