Functional Fixedness: A Cognitive Bias That Makes You Less Creative

Functional Fixedness: A Cognitive Bias That Makes You Less Creative - Fallacy in Logic

You are probably familiar with the expression “thinking outside of the box”, as well as its meaning: To think in a creative, open-minded way to solve a problem.

There is a psychological tendency that can prevent you from breaking out of the “box”, known as functional fixedness. In essence, it limits the ways we use objects or think about situations only to the most typical ways.

For example, the majority of people perceive the living room as a place that should contain a sofa and a TV and is used for relaxation, and would likely find it counter-intuitive to view it differently.

In this article, we’ll explain in detail how this bias works, how it can harm your problem-solving, and what you can do to overcome it.

What Is Functional Fixedness?

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias — a built-in, systematic error in thinking — in which people are unable to use or think about something, such as a tool, beyond its most typical functions. In short, you see things only in their traditional sense.

As such, it’s also a type of mental set, meaning a tendency to choose that course of action which is familiar or has proven to work in the past.

Functional fixedness is — like other biases —a part of our cognition for a reason: It simplifies information processing and helps us make quick and relatively efficient judgments. For instance, whenever you have to write something down, you instinctively know you need to get a pencil to do it because you are “fixated” on the pencil’s function as the designated tool for writing. This saves you time and effort every time you have to do something you are already familiar with.

However, functional fixedness can also have negative effects on us: Namely, it limits your ability to think creatively and solve problems. This is because the inability to see past the preconceived notion you have about something makes it difficult for you to see it in alternative ways.

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To better illustrate the effect, let’s look at a few examples.

Candle Problem

German psychologist Karl Duncker — who was also the first to define functional fixedness — conducted a well-known experiment known as the Candle Problem in 1945.

In the experiment, he gave the participants a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle, and asked them to attach the candle to the wall so that when it was lit, it would not drip onto the table below. Most of the participants attempted to do it either by using the tacks directly or using melted candle wax as glue, while only a few individuals thought of tacking the empty tack box to the wall and using it as a candle holder — thus solving the problem.

However, when the participants were given the box and tacks separately, they were significantly more likely to find the right solution. Duncker ascribed this to functional fixedness; the individuals were only able to perceive the typical function of the box, which was being a container for the tacks, instead of seeing it as a separate object that could help them solve the puzzle.

Hanging a Painting

Suppose that “Kevin” is in a situation where he needs to hang a painting on his bedroom wall. He has plenty of screws in his toolbox, but he cannot find a screwdriver anywhere. Consequently, he decides to abandon the project for the time being and buy one the next time he goes to the hardware store.

Then, upon hearing about Kevin’s small setback, his friend points out that a screwdriver is not actually necessary: just use any item that fits nicely into the head of the screw. Kevin takes heed of his friend’s advice and tries with the pointy end of a key, which, as it turns out, tightens the screw quite easily.

Here, Kevin’s thinking was restricted by functional fixedness — he couldn’t think past his preconceived view of how screws should be tightened — while his friend was able to think more creatively and thus find a solution to the issue.


Functional fixedness may also be present in relationships.

Consider a married couple who have been living together for several years. For this entire time, they have been following the same routine: the wife cooks the dinner at home while the husband works long hours at the office.

However, due to the pandemic, the husband gets laid off and now has to stay at home. As a result, the wife doesn’t agree to take care of the daily dinner anymore and instead asks her husband to share the work. The husband, being used to the arrangement and seeing dinner-making as her job, has difficulties accepting the change and argues against it.

How to Overcome It

Functional Fixedness: A Cognitive Bias That Makes You Less Creative - Fallacy in Logic

As seen in the examples above, this bias has the potential to paralyze your ability to overcome certain obstacles.

Naturally, the question “what can be done to overcome it” arises.

Firstly, it’s important to note that it cannot be completely eliminated from your thinking; like other biases, it is deeply rooted in your cognitive landscape and will continue to be so.

That being said, there are certainly things you can do to reduce its impact:

Develop Understanding

Naturally, the most essential thing is to be aware of its existence — which you already got covered if you’ve read the article until this point. For best results, study it in detail and get well familiar with the concept.

You can draw on the knowledge when you are stuck with a problem and apply conscious effort to “think outside of the box”.

Simplify the Challenge

One helpful technique is to simplify the challenge as much as possible. To achieve this, approach the problem by:

  • carefully identifying it,
  • leaving out any non-essential details,
  • and breaking it down to its most fundamental elements.

As in the Candle Problem explained above, the participants were better at accomplishing the task when the box of thumbtacks was broken down into its separate parts: a box and thumbtacks.

Seek Inspiration from Distant Fields

Research has shown that people are able to come up with more creative solutions by drawing inspiration from domains that are only distantly related to the one involving the problem.

For instance, if you are facing difficulties in your personal relationships, you may look into fields such as chemistry or biology for inspiration.

Problems, when stripped down to their fundamental parts, oftentimes share many similar characteristics across domains and disciplines. As such, they can provide you with a fresh angle and new ideas to your own problem-solving.

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