Functional fixedness: when we stick to what we know

Reading time: 6 minutes

Surely, a knife is made for cutting things. And you can only use a cotton swab to clean your ears — right? Functional fixedness is a form of cognitive bias which makes us automatically narrow down the function of each tool. Although functional fixedness offers great mental shortcuts, it can present barriers to working to your full creative potential.

A cognitive bias that impairs creative thinking

Karl Duncker first defined functional fixedness in 1945. He gave study participants a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches, and challenged them to attach the candle to a wall so that it would not drip on the floor when lit. Most participants failed to recognise that the tack box itself could be pinned to the wall, creating a shelf for the candle to stand on. Functional fixedness was demonstrated by the participants inability to see that the tack box could be useful on its own, rather than simply being a storage box.

Functional Fixedness Experiment

Young children are great at thinking creatively. A den can be made from a blanket and two chairs, sticks become swords, and a cardboard box makes a perfect living room boat. But this creative thinking disappears pretty quickly: 5-year-olds are less likely to show functional fixedness, even compared to 6- or 7-year-olds. Unfortunately, by the time we reach adulthood, this functional fixedness has become even more rigid. 

Even when working in a creative industry, it is common to become trapped in a cycle of sticking with what we know. There is comfort in repeating tasks in a way that fits with our preconceived ideas about how things should be done, especially if these methods have been successful in the past. However, rigid methods can hinder the discovery of better solutions to a problem or task.

Scientists found that when functional fixedness was encouraged, the creative centres of the brain were less active on an electroencephalogram (EEG). Conversely, participants who were not prompted to think in a biased manner had active creative centres on EEG. This suggests that promoting creative ways of thinking can help to overcome functional fixedness.

Overcoming functional fixedness

Our brains are adept at rewiring neuronal connections to prompt changes in brain function and therefore behaviour. A study suggests that brain rewiring can occur as a form of plasticity resulting from learning processes and life experiences. That’s good news: it means it is possible to teach your brain to move away from functional fixedness and instead embrace creative thinking at work and in your personal life.

1. Make a conscious effort

Leaving your preconceptions about how a task should be completed behind can therefore feel challenging, but this is vital to tackling functional fixedness. It will take time and effort to find innovative ways of problem-solving. 

When you are next faced with a task or problem at work, remind yourself that you are learning to step away from fixed ideas. Set time aside to explore the issue creatively in order to find alternative solutions.

2. Abstract the problem

Simplifying the problem into its basic components is the next step away from functional fixedness. Rather than focusing on the details of the task, you should focus only on its essential elements.

For example, if you need to re-pot a plant, functional fixedness will leave you intent on finding a plant pot. If you do not have another plant pot available, the task may quickly fail. However, if you strip away the detail so that all you require is an object to hold the plant, you may find that using a mug, bowl or jar is better in both functional and aesthetic terms.

Without the distraction of unnecessary detail, you are less likely to fall into the restrictive trap of thinking “but we have always done it this way”. Thinking in an abstract manner allows you to come up with new perspectives that are creative, and in many cases, better than the ones stemming from fixed ideas.

3. Remove judgment

When you first approach a task, it can be easy to judge any new ideas harshly and to quickly discard them. Try to remove judgment early in the process so that all ideas can be properly contemplated. Do not limit your options, as new perspectives that you allow to emerge could later be highly successful. At first, no idea should be considered too wild!

4. Look for inspiration elsewhere 

Surprisingly, even professionals in other sectors or distant industries can offer insight into new ways of solving problems. A sector that seems completely unrelated to yours could have a simple solution that has eluded you due to the presence of functional fixedness.  

For example, companies are exploring artificial intelligence to reduce manpower demands. However, this expertise in artificial intelligence could be of huge benefit to a company searching for ways to improve the quality of life of disabled clients who want more independence without relying on carers. Although the two companies have completely different aims, artificial intelligence systems could assist both in reaching their goals.

Apply the same principle by exploring adjacent industries for creative solutions to your problem. It could be as simple as asking a friend how they would approach your problem in their industry.

5. Widen your network

As it involves enlisting the support of external participants to find solutions, crowdsourcing is a great way to overcome functional fixedness. Despite the phrase not being coined until 2006, the concept of crowdsourcing is not actually new. Since the eighteenth century, organisations have used this technique to broaden creativity and innovation in every aspect of business. 

For example, LEGO invites fans to submit their own ideas, the most popular of which will be reviewed by LEGO experts. If approved, the design will be manufactured for sale in shops. Rather than relying solely on in-house designers, this decision to consider product suggestions from fans reduces functional fixedness. 

Crowdsourcing increases their creativity and chance of selling a successful product that they would not otherwise have thought of. Take a leaf out of their book: widen your network and take advice or inspiration from others to be more creative.

The power of conscious practice

As we get older, our preconceived ideas of how things should be done become more rigid and harder to challenge. Although functional fixedness offers useful heuristics that help us save time on simple tasks, it can be detrimental to our creative thinking.

Like many creative processes, the more you practice finding new ways of problem solving, the easier it will become. Rather than automatically following the same processes, try to develop the habit of regularly looking for answers outside the box, or even outside the system.

Making a conscious effort to let go of rigidity in favour of finding new ways of doing things will foster more innovative thinking; letting go of the status quo in favour of branching out to generate alternative solutions will lead to more creative solutions.