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Functional Fixedness: How It Hinders Innovation and Creativity and Keeps Us Stuck

Updated: Jul 5, 2023


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Do you remember the times in school when we would sometimes forget to polish our shoes and ended up doing a quirky foot maneuver to clean them with our socks just before the shoe-check? It may sound shabby now, but in retrospect, we were actually overcoming functional fixedness. Our desire for a clean uniform record forced us to find an alternate use for our socks - as a shoe-polisher!


Some additional examples of breaking free of functional fixedness from my life are - when I use a yoga block as a laptop stand or when I use my duffel bag as back support during travels. Can you come up with any personal examples?


Functional fixedness is a psychological concept identified by Karl Duncker that refers to our tendency to see objects as having only one purpose or function. It is the mental block that prevents us from using an object in a novel way to solve a problem.


Duncker conducted an experiment. He asked people to solve the problem of a candle dripping wax onto a table using only what was in front of them; a box of thumb tacks and a book of matches.

Duncker, Karl (1945), Psychological Monographs, 58, American Psychological Association OCLC: 968793., Public Domain

Participants had a set amount of time to come up with a solution. The majority of participants attempted to secure the candle to the wall using the thumbtacks as intended, but this strategy failed.


The solution was to think outside the box and use the thumbtacks as a candle holder, by fixing the candle to the box with the thumbtacks and then attaching the box to the wall. The winning formula was to use the box in which tacks were kept as a candle stand!


This experiment has been used as a foundation for understanding functional fixedness in psychology and has inspired further research on creativity and problem-solving.


Coming back to our first example, if our minds were fixed on the conventional method of polishing the shoe, we would have been caught during uniform check, but we came up with a new and clever solution to the problem of having unpolished shoes. ;)


This example may be trivial, but it shows how by breaking out of our fixed patterns of thinking, we can come up with new and effective solutions to the challenges we face.


So, why people get into functional fixedness?


People get into functional fixedness for a variety of reasons. One of the most common reasons is familiarity. When we're used to doing things a certain way, we become comfortable with that method, and it's difficult to see things differently. It takes some effort to push our brains out of comfort zone of familiarity and habit.


Our parents and teachers have a great impact on developing our thinking abilities. If a child is not encouraged to ask questions( even the silly ones) or to explore his/her environment chances are that child may avoid thinking beyond what he/she has learnt.


Our limited experience with a situation and object could be another reason. It is also quite possible that in some situations we are willing to look at things differently and in some situations we don't.


Some other reasons could be impatience, fear of change, fear of failure, fear of making mistake, what will people think etc


Overcoming functional fixedness can be difficult, but it is not impossible. It is important to recognize these underlying causes and work actively to expand our viewpoints and challenge our assumptions. This might include engaging in creative thinking exercises and consciously adopting mindsets and attitudes that encourage thinking outside the box.


Here are some attitude changes you may try:


Being aware: We may be "in the box thinking mode" without even realising it when we are hooked on a certain way of doing things or mode of thinking. We don't need to modify if we are finding solutions using conventional logic, but, if we are getting nowhere and moving mindlessly, or are not satisfied with the quality of solutions, it's a good idea to pay attention to your thinking process.


Embrace curiosity: Be curious and ask questions. Don't be afraid to explore different perspectives and ideas. Nurture your inner child, coming to a judgment too early can kill the curiosity.


Gain knowledge and practice: You cant expect to solve a complicated trigonometry problem without mastering the basic concepts.


Challenge assumptions: We often hold assumptions and beliefs that limit our thinking. Challenge those assumptions and be open to see things from a fresh perspective. Ask yourself, "What if things were different?"


Practice divergent thinking: Divergent thinking is the ability to generate multiple ideas from a single concept. Practice this by brainstorming, mind-mapping, or using other creative thinking techniques. Let no thought be off limits.


Seek inspiration: Inspiration can come from anywhere. Surround yourself with things that inspire you, like art, music, or nature. Read books or watch movies that challenge your thinking.


Learn something new: Learning new things can help you think outside the box. Take a class or learn a new skill. This can help you gain new insights and perspectives.


Meet and talk with a variety of people: Connect not only with those whose ideas and opinions you like, but also with people whose experiences, beliefs, and viewpoints differ from yours. Be open to individuals from other cultures, ethnicities, professions, and backgrounds.


Take mental pauses: Often the finest creative answers come when we are not thinking about the problem. Additionally, teaching the mind to be at ease in stillness, like in meditation, is tremendously beneficial to creativity.


Accept uncertainty and have an optimistic attitude: Uncertainty may be frightening, but it can also provide chances for growth and innovation.A positive attitude may help you overcome hurdles and problems.


And to conclude I am leaving you with this quote by Edward De Bono, renowned author and pioneer in creative thinking techniques-


"The problem with perception is that we don't see what we don't expect to see.”

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