Why do we have trouble thinking outside the box?
Functional Fixedness, explained.
What is Functional Fixedness?
Functional fixedness describes why we're unable to use an object in ways beyond its traditional use. Functional fixedness is a phenomenon found in problem-solving psychology and affects an individual’s ability to innovate and be creative when solving challenges.1
Where this bias occurs
Consider the term “thinking outside the box.” Functional fixedness describes the difficulty we experience when we attempt to be creative in our problem-solving and our outside of the box thinking. Commonly, functional fixedness is used to highlight this problem-solving barrier in instances such as when we strive to use an object for a purpose other than its traditional use.
As children, many people may remember the ease of being creative and using their imagination to transform objects and their intended uses into something more. What was once a chair or a cardboard box, children quickly turn into fortresses with pillows and blankets. As we age, though, this ease in innovation becomes more difficult for the average person. Imagine someone needs a paperweight but is unable to find one. Instead of using a heavy object they can easily find in the room, they are fixated on their need for a paperweight. They might not think of using an object like a hammer or a stapler, which is unconventional to its typical use.
Debias Your Organization
Most of us work & live in environments that aren’t optimized for solid decision-making. We work with organizations of all kinds to identify sources of cognitive bias & develop tailored solutions.
Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that negatively affects a person’s ability to problem-solve and innovate. The bias causes a person to look at a problem in only one specific way and it can prevent them from developing effective solutions to their challenge. Functional fixedness can impact all areas of one’s life, including their academic life, careers, and personal lives. A person’s inability to recognize alternative approaches constrains their creativity and limits their potential ideas when looking to solve a problem.
Functional fixedness can prevent companies and societies from innovating and solving pressing challenges. Passiveness and familiarity stem from an individual’s need to maintain the status quo and do things as they have always been done. There is comfort in familiarity, and it’s a natural human tendency to do what is comfortable.2
From a corporate level, functional fixedness has led to issues in developing breakthrough products and solutions for internal challenges. For nations, functional fixedness has resulted in a lack of innovative solutions to tackle more significant societal problems. Systemic issues arising from functional fixedness have real-world impacts and are a real pain point for societies, as leaders cannot look past traditional solutions to solve complex problems.
Why it happens
Functional fixedness occurs due to strong pre-conceived notions that people develop regarding objects and how they must solve challenges using those objects.
Researchers have found that functional fixedness is a bias that develops and strengthens as we age. When studying functional fixedness in children, a study done at the University of Essex found that 5-year-old children showed no initial signs of the bias in early development when problem-solving. Meanwhile, as early as the age of 7, children tended to treat objects as they were meant to be used, already developing the bias.2 Younger participants present initial immunity to the bias due to their initial lack of problem-solving experience, allowing them to be more creative in their solutions.1
Functional fixedness has also proven to develop more as individuals gain more experience with problem-solving. Ironically, the more practice we have with identifying solutions to a problem, the more difficult it is to identify alternative or more creative solutions.3 Though individuals may be aware that their traditional method of solving a problem may be over-used and ineffective, they are typically still tempted to use the same problem-solving approach, due to their familiarity with it.
Why it is important
Problem-solving is a regular part of any individual’s life. Functional fixedness impairs an individual’s ability to innovate and creatively tackle problems by limiting their problem-solving capabilities.
Individuals who are aware of functional fixedness can work towards avoiding bias and improving their problem-solving abilities. By consciously working to think innovatively, and better tackle problems in their professional and personal lives, they can strive towards unique and innovative solutions.
How to avoid it
As with many cognitive biases, functional fixedness can appear when tackling challenges in many different areas of life. Avoiding functional fixedness requires a conscious effort on the individual’s part towards promoting innovative ways of thinking and problem-solving.
Abstract the Problem
The first step to overcoming functional fixedness is done by first developing an awareness of the problem and simplifying it. A practice referred to as “uncommitting,” describes simplifying a challenge and distilling it down to the problem’s essential elements. By eliminating the details of the problem, we allow ourselves to think more creatively about the solution. By focusing on identifying the problem, and not judging ideas too early in the problem-solving process, alternative perspectives and possible solutions can be identified.3
Draw Inspiration from Unexpected Places
Researchers have found that when people look for inspiration from distant domains, they tend to generate more creative solutions to their problems, especially in comparison to those who draw inspiration from more closely related fields.3 Solutions from the abstract and distantly-related industries provide novel fixes, which tend to deliver creative and successful solutions.
Opinions from Different Disciplines
Like drawing inspiration from different disciplines, reaching out to experts in various fields also serves as a solution to avoiding functional fixedness and better-solving problems within one’s domain. Crowdsourcing initiatives by large technology companies provide an excellent example of this fix in play. Samsung, Unilever, and Lego have used crowdsourcing campaigns to share internal company challenges and call for innovative solutions from those external to their company in different industries. Crowdsourcing initiatives have continued to gain traction due to the success companies have seen in their ability to garner innovative solutions at a low cost, aiding these companies to avoid functional fixedness.4 Crowdsourcing has proven to be an innovative way to avoid functional fixedness, as participants from outside of corporations do not hold the same preconceived notions of internal employees within these companies. Without these preconceived notions and set standards and processes, crowdsourcing participants are able to avoid the restrictive innovative barriers typically developed in these traditional settings.
How it all started
Functional fixedness was first defined by the German psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945. Karl Duncker described functional fixedness as a mental block when using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.5 The block Karl emphasizes in his famous experiment demonstrates how an individual’s ability to complete a task with specific components were limited, as they were unable to rationalize their use outside of their original purpose.
The famous experiment conducted by Karl Duncker is well-known in psychology for demonstrating functional fixedness. In this experiment, Duncker gave participants a book of matches, a candle and a box of thumbtacks, and asked them to attach the candle to the wall so that when it was lit, it would not drip onto the table below it. Initially, most of the participants attempted to attach the candle to the wall by directly using the tacks or by trying to glue the candle to the wall by melting it. Because the Duncker gave participants a box with thumbtacks in them, few of the participants thought of using the box as a candle-holder and attaching the box to the wall with the tacks. Since the experiment participants fixated on the functionality of the box being used to hold the thumbtacks, they were unable to conceptualize the box as a potential solution for holding the candle, thus solving the challenge.
Additionally, in 1952 the experiment was later conducted by giving one set of participants an empty box without the thumbtacks while giving the other set of participants the box with thumbtacks inside. Participants who were given the box without the thumbtacks inside of the box were two times as likely to solve the problem.6 The box no longer was used to hold the thumbtacks; therefore, its functionality was not tied to one single use.
Example 1 - PepsiCo leverages orthopedic experts
PepsiCo provides a notable example of functional fixedness and how companies attempt to curtail their own biases when developing products. In this example, PepsiCo’s challenge was to reduce the amount of sodium in its potato chips, without altering the salty flavors that customers traditionally loved. PepsiCo first tried to identify a solution to their problem by looking at the food and snack industry for similar challenges faced by their competitors but found nothing notable to their challenge. PepsiCo then worked with a third-party consulting firm and shared their problem to a broad and diverse range of technical experts to find an innovative and feasible solution.
Experts called on included those from engineering services, energy companies, and those in medical fields. The most creative and applicable response came from the orthopedics department of a global research lab. Researchers had developed a method of creating nano-particles of salt, which was initially used to conduct advanced research on osteoporosis. The process provided a new perspective and partner for PepsiCo, which ultimately led to Pepsi being able to solve their challenge by overcoming functional fixedness.2
Example 2 - Creatively designing power strips
Another example of functional fixedness showcases how individuals overcame the cognitive bias by simplifying their initial problem. The experiment conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University required participants to design a power strip in which larger plugs would not block adjacent outlets. To promote creative design solutions, researchers gave one set of participants the initial design challenge, and the second set of participants an abstracted version of the problem. The second set of participants were asked to instead fit objects of different sizes into a container without blocking one another, and taking advantage of the container’s full capacity. The challenge was reframed to avoid functional fixedness by stripping away the objects’ details being power strips, plugs, and outlets. By doing this, researchers looked to see which set of participants would develop the most innovative results.
The researchers found that when participants given the abstracted challenge identified relevant but distant domains to aid in their problem-solving. The areas of comparison included landscaping, carpentry, Japanese aesthetics, and contortionism. Participants who were able to gain inspiration from these distant domains found the most novel and practical solutions to the design problem. The study proves that when preventing functional fixedness, and promoting creativity, the best solutions are developed.4
What it is
Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person’s ability to use an object in more ways than it is traditionally used and affects an individual’s ability to innovate and be creative when solving challenges.
Why it happens
Functional fixedness occurs due to strong pre-conceived notions that people develop in regards to objects and how they must solve challenges using those objects. These preconceived notions typically develop as we age, and as we gain experience in problem-solving.
Example 1 - PepsiCo leverages orthopedic experts
PepsiCo encountered functional fixedness issues when looking for ways to reduce the amount of sodium in its potato chip products without altering the salty flavors that customers love. When the PepsiCo team was unable to innovate and solve the challenge due to their functional fixedness, they attempted to crowdsource solutions from across domains and were able to find a solution from the orthopedics department of a global research lab. A practice used in researching osteoporosis helped solve PepsiCo’s challenge and provided a creative solution for the company.
Example 2 - Creatively designing power strips
A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University tested the quality of design solutions in participants without functional fixedness bias. The first set of participants had to design a power strip which ensured that larger plugs would not block adjacent outlets. The second set of students were asked to develop a similar simplified task. This entailed fitting objects of different sizes into a container so that they wouldn’t block one another to take advantage of the container’s full capacity. The researchers found that when participants were given the abstracted problem, they identified relevant domains to aid in their problem-solving. Participants were able to gain inspiration from these distant domains and found the most novel and practical solutions to the design problem.
How to avoid it
Functional fixedness can be avoided by firstly being aware of the bias. Abstracting the initial problem, drawing inspiration from other domains, and even getting opinions from different types of experts in other industries can help avoid Functional fixedness in one’s quotidian life.