What is Functional Fixedness?
Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person’s ability to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used. The term was coined by German-American psychologist Karl Duncker and is a type of mental set and fixation, where one is ‘fixed’ on seeing objects as functioning only in their usual or prescribed manner. It represents a barrier to problem-solving and creative thinking as it hampers the ability to view problems from a new, innovative perspective.
This bias affects a person’s problem-solving and decision-making abilities, as they fail to consider alternative uses for an object or a solution to a problem beyond its ‘fixed’ or standard function. The concept of functional fixedness is central to the study of creativity, innovation, cognitive psychology, and design thinking.
Examples of Functional Fixedness
Duncker’s Candle Problem
The candle problem is a classic experiment used to measure functional fixedness. In this task, individuals are given a box of thumbtacks, a candle, and a book of matches, and asked to affix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below. The solution involves using the thumbtack box as a candle holder, but due to functional fixedness, many people struggle to see the box as anything other than a container for the thumbtacks.
This is another classic experiment where a person is shown two cords hanging from the ceiling and is asked to tie them together. However, the cords are spaced far enough apart that the person cannot hold onto one and reach the other. The solution involves swinging one of the cords like a pendulum, then grabbing the other cord, and finally grabbing the swinging cord when it returns. But often, people overlook the possibility of using an object in the room (like a weight) to swing the cord due to functional fixedness.
Functional fixedness can be seen in everyday situations. For instance, when a screwdriver is not available, it might not occur to a person to use a coin or a knife to turn a screw, as they are fixated on the ‘normal’ function of these objects.
Significance of Functional Fixedness
Functional fixedness is an essential concept in fields like psychology, design, and innovation. Understanding this bias can help in fostering creative thinking and problem-solving. In psychology, it is used to understand cognitive barriers and how they can be overcome. In design and innovation, an understanding of functional fixedness can lead to more innovative solutions by challenging the conventional uses of objects or ideas. In education, overcoming functional fixedness can encourage students to think ‘outside the box’.
Controversies and Criticisms of Functional Fixedness
Some critics argue that functional fixedness is not so much a cognitive bias as it is a result of cultural or societal norms that dictate the use of objects or solutions. Additionally, while the term is widely accepted and used, the methodologies and applications in measuring and overcoming functional fixedness have been criticized and debated. Some researchers also question the universal applicability of functional fixedness, as certain cultures may promote more flexible thinking and less adherence to traditional object usage than others. Despite these debates, the term remains a significant contribution to our understanding of cognitive biases, creativity, and problem-solving.