Functional Fixedness – How to be More Resourceful

By on May 9, 2014

To get things started I thought I’d share a small tidbit that is at once an interesting insight into our brains and at the same time a great lesson in creative thinking and resourcefulness.

Functional fixedness is the name of a cognitive bias that prevents us from thinking outside the box and taking full advantage of everything at our disposal. We think of items as having one specific purpose because we’ve thought of them that way our whole lives, and this then prevents us from thinking of new or interesting ways to use them. Breaking outside of this pattern of thinking and getting around functional fixedness meanwhile can make us better at solving unique problems.

The Candle Box Problem

A great example of this is the ‘candle box problem’. Here participants are given a small candle and a box of wall tacks and are then asked to attach the candle to the wall so that it can burn while poised there. Normally people will try various things like using the melted wax to attach the candle to the wall, or like hammering the tacks through the candle into the wall (which of course doesn’t work).

The solution though is to take the tacks out of the box, to stand the candle in that box, and then to tack the box to the wall. It’s simple and elegant, but the problem is that people struggle to think of that box as anything other than the container that the tacks came in. Because they are so fixed on this one use, they then fail to make full use of what’s available to them. This stifles creativity and prevents people from achieving things that they otherwise might.

The Solution

So then what is the solution? How do you overcome this flaw in our thinking?

The solution is to stop for a moment whenever you’re faced with a problem and to list all the materials you have available to you by breaking your resources down into their smallest constituent parts and then adding them up as much as you can.

So normally when faced with the candle box problem you might think you have been given tacks and a candle. In fact though you should break this down and add it up to realise that you have:

  • Wax
  • Tacks (metal)
  • Cardboard
  • Container
  • Wick
  • wall (stone)
  • A cylinder

Likewise a box of matches isn’t just matches, rather it’s card, foil (reflection), paper, wood, friction and most importantly: fire, heat, smoke and light. This is an important realisation if ever you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere!

Look around you and you’ll probably notice that right now you have access to a huge amount of resources – from the gradient of the ground, to the materials that make the device you’re reading this on to the clothes you’re wearing.

And remember:

There is no such thing as a lack of resources, only a lack of resourcefulness.

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