Functional Fixedness (Why We Can’t See What’s In Front)

Today, we’re gonna talk about another cognitive bias. It’s called functional fixedness.

It’s a concept that talks about how we look at an object and only see its common use.

Now to get a better idea of functional fixedness, I’ll share with you this experiment.

It’s called the candle problem. And it was made by this psychologist, Karl Duncker.

So what he did was, he gave participants, adults and children, he gave them a box of thumbtacks and matches.

And then, he asked them to light a candle on a wall without letting the wax drip on the table below.

And here’s what a lot of the adults participants did, they tried attaching the candle directly on the wall using thumbtacks. Obviously it didn’t work.

But then, the younger ones, 5 yr old children to be exact, they got it right.

Now the correct way to do it is to attach the thumbtacks box on the wall, using a thumbtack, and to put the candle in the box. Simple, right?

But because of functional fixedness, many participants didn’t realize this. They thought that the box was only a container for the thumbtacks. They didn’t think it can be used for the experiment.

Now, this is something that we develop over time.

That’s also why 5 year old children don’t have this bias.

See this article of landing interviews guaranteed review and what he did to overcome his failure.

You see, when we look at an object, the motor cortex of our brain quickly associates it with the way we know the object is used for.

For example, if you see a fork, you’ll know that it’s used for food.

But then, a 5 year old child might also look differently. Like he might use it to comb his hair.

This is why you see a lot of young kids using pots as to make musical instruments.

So anyway, why is this important to your career?

Functional fixedness is a problem, it blocks new ideas, stops you from thinking creatively.

For example, messaging apps used to be used for just that – chatting.

But eventually, companies saw that it can also be used for marketing. And for some, it’s effective.

Here’s another example.

If you’re a junior associate, then your manager might not easily see you as someone who can be a mentor. Not because you’re not capable, but because of your designation.

So now, what can you do about this?

Here’s one way to overcome this bias. It’s called “generic parts technique.”

This concept is about breaking down an object into basic parts.

Let’s go back to our example earlier, the candle problem, people didn’t think of using the box.

And it’s because they saw it like that – a thumbtack box.

But with this “generic parts techniques,” we look at it simply. It’s not a thumbtack box but simply a cardboard container.

Same goes for a candle. When you break it down to basic parts, it simply becomes wax and wick.

So, you see the idea, now when you need to solve a problem or deliver a project, break it down to basic.

It can help you see alternative approaches.

For example, if you’re working on customer research, you’ll probably consult CRM.

But here, you can also consult the sales team, the ones who face the customers. You can start from there.

You see, once you learn how to get over this bias, the better you’ll get at thinking creatively.


Posted on