Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Functional fixedness
What is functional fixedness and how can it be overcome?
Functional fixedness is "a situation in which a problem solver cannot think of using an object in a new function that is required to solve the problem" (Mayer, 2012). It stems from Gestalt psychology, and falls within the cognitive field. Functional fixedness is thought to be learnt, and is developed during childhood (German & Defeyter, 2000). Some examples of functional fixedness include the Einstellung effect, the candle problem, the water jar problem and the two-cord problem. It can be overcome using inhibitory techniques, the generic-parts technique, and by understanding the neural structures that are a part of the cognitive process.
What is functional fixedness?Edit
Functional fixedness is one type of a cognitive bias that affects problem solving and innovation skills. There are a number of definitions of functional fixedness that can be useful in explaining its core components.
"Functional fixedness consists in focusing on some function of an object while overlooking another necessary for problem solving." (Arnon & Kreitler, 1984).
"Functional fixedness or fixation is an instance ... wherein a solver’s experience with a particular function of an object impedes using the object in a novel way during creative problem solving." (Chrysikou et al., 2016).
"An inability to perceive new relationships, due to prior representation through experience of an object involved ... causes the participant to dwell on the particular function of an object, inhibiting the formation of a new representation" (Condell et al., 2010).
"... functional fixedness is the disinclination to use familiar objects in novel way." (Brosnan & Hopper, 2014).
"The tendency to perceive an object only in terms of its most common use." (Lubarsky & Thomas, 2020).
Through compiling the definitions, for the rest of the chapter functional fixedness can be considered the cognitive bias that occurs when using an item only in a set way with no variation from the norm, even when practical.
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The history of functional fixednessEdit
Functional fixedness emerged from the Gestalt school of psychology, which focuses on perception occurring in whole patterns or configurations rather than individual components. Key figures within Gestalt psychology are Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka (Silverstein & Uhlhaas, 2004). Functional fixedness now falls within the field of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology seeks to understand a wide variety of mental processes, and how unconscious information processing can affect thought, language, attention, perception and more (Bargh & Morsella, 2008).
Functional fixity, now known as functional fixedness, was first devised by a Gestalt psychologist, Karl Duncker, from Germany in his book titled 'Psychologie des produktiven Denkens' published in 1935 (Seel, 2012). Duncker was a student of Wertheimer, Köhler and Koffka, and was the one who coined the term functional fixedness. Duncker set out to investigate cognition and problem-solving; in particular he studied how adults solved mathematical and practical problems. It was noted in his works that while functional fixedness was necessary, it can inhibit problem-solving and creativity (Mungan, 2021). Duncker continued his research, and in 1945 published the now well known 'candle problem' that will be discussed in greater detail further in the chapter.
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Cause of functional fixednessEdit
Functional fixedness is somewhat of a learnt phenomenon. The growth of humans, in age and experience, is associated with strong improvement in problem-solving ability shown by older children often outperforming younger children in tasks. In the case of functional fixedness, though, findings are somewhat different. A study found that older children, ages 6-7, were far slower at a functional fixedness tasks in comparison to those aged 5. The results of the study suggest that previous experiences about functions of items can effect problem-solving (German & Defeyter, 2000).
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Examples of functional fixednessEdit
There are many ways that functional fixedness can present itself, from set examples that have been studied widely to day-to-day occurrences that we often overlook.
The Einstellung effectEdit
Einstellung is German for 'attitude', the Einstellung effect is "the counterintuitive finding that prior experience or domain-specific knowledge can under some circumstances interfere with problem solving performance" (Ellis & Reingold, 2014). It was first described by Abraham Luchins in his thesis published in 1942 which suggests that it occurs when a solution used to solve an old problem previously is repeated to solve a new problem even when there is a better way to solve the problem (Binz & Schulz, 2021). In layman's terms, the Einstellung effect outlines how previous experience can effect the solving of new problems in a negative way - usually due to overlooking facts or blocking creativity. The theory behind the Einstellung effect underlies many concrete examples of functional fixedness.
The candle problemEdit
An example of the Einstellung effect and the occurrence of functional fixedness was proposed by Karl Duncker, a German Gestalt psychologist in the 1940s, known now as the 'candle problem' where associations between repeated use of the given items and problem-solving skills were investigated.
The 'candle problem' provides subjects with a room which has a table against a wall, an unlit candle, a box of thumb tacks, and a sleeve of matches. The subjects are asked to fix the lit candle to the wall without wax dripping on the table underneath (Duncker, 1945). Many participants struggled, some set out to reach the goal by melting the candle to use as an adhesive, others tried to pin the candle directly to the wall with the provided thumbtacks. The best solution would have been to empty the box of thumbtacks, pin the box to the wall using a thumbtack, and then use the box as a tray for the candle to sit and and catch any wax drippings, however subjects failed due to the cognitive bias of functional fixedness (Lubarsky & Thomas, 2020). Participants used their previous experiences to solve the problem, but their creativity was hindered by knowledge and expected use of the items (Duncker, 1945).
Later in 1962, psychologist Sam Glucksberg conducted further research into the initial candle problem, and manipulated Duncker's previous experiment to gain further insight into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness. Glucksberg manipulated the original experiment by dividing the participants into two groups, one group was offered a monetary incentive and the other group was not offered any incentive. Subjects within the group that were offered the incentive took longer than the other group, thought to be due to a 'mental block' that made it harder for people to think creatively (Glucksberg, 1962). Glucksberg then modified the experiment again by taking the tacks out of the box first, then repeating his manipulated experiment with two groups (one given a monetary incentive, the other not) and found that subjects with the monetary incentives did indeed perform better (Glucksberg, 1962). This research suggests that when the mental block is removed performance is better, especially when their is an incentive involved.
The water jar problemEdit
The 'water jar problem' was developed by Gestalt psychologist Abraham Luchins in 1942, whilst also outlining the Einstellung effect. Luchins conduced an experiment with the aim of understanding how perceived expertise has an effect on creativity and problem-solving ability. Participants were given a set of ten problems requiring them to determine how to get a desired about of water using three different jugs of varying capacity. Please see the table below of the problem set.
|Problem||Capacity of Jug A||Capacity of Jug B||Capacity of Jug C||Desired Quantity|
|Source: Luchins, 1942|
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The formula of B-2C-A is the most efficient way to solve problems 1-5. It can be used to solve problems 6-7 as well, although there is a better way (A-C). It was found that by problem 6, participants became used to using the formula and overlooked the simpler way. When participants got to problem 8, they had become accustomed to the formula B-2C-A and failed to notice they could use A-C. Problems 6-10 can all be solved using either A-C or A+C. Participants who began by solving problems 6-10 had little hesitancy and were able to solve the problems much faster than those who started at problem 1 and became accustomed to using B-2C-A (Luchins, 1942). This shows how success of previous experience can blind us when solving new problems.
The results of the water jar problem suggest that susceptibility to functional fixedness is linked to behavioural rigidity can be influenced by mental sets of information that occur due to the concreteness of human cognitions (Adamson & Taylor, 1954).
The two-cords problemEdit
In 1931, experimental psychologist Norman Maier published his findings from an experiment coined the 'two cords problem'. The experiment looked at how previous solutions inhibit participants from coming up with other original solutions that are just as effective. Maier (1931) outlined the four basic possible solutions:
- Anchor cord 1 with a large object, and bring cord 2 over
- Lengthen cord 1 to reach cord 2
- Hold onto cord 1 and use a pole to pull cord 2 closer
- Use a weight as a pendulum on cord 1, swing it closer to cord 2
Participants who reached one solution struggled to perform the other solutions, even when provided with hints by the researcher due to cognitive bias and previous knowledge. Maier's research provides a theoretical basis for many examples of functional fixedness. The results provide evidence that there is a link between susceptibility to functional fixedness and inability to overcome set (Maier, 1931).
Day-to-day examples of functional fixednessEdit
While these examples provide a good overview of functional fixedness, mental sets and how they impact problem-solving and creativity, functional fixedness occurs often in our day-to-day lives. We often do not realise that it is occurring, as our cognitions are not always conscious. Some day-to-day examples of functional fixedness include:
- Needing a paperweight, not using the heavy hammer on the desk
- Needing a step stool, not using the chair you are sitting on
- Needing a hammer, not using the heavy brick next to you
- Needing a hair tie, not using the elastic band on the desk
- Needing flathead screwdriver, not using a 5c coin from your wallet
- Needing a lever, not using a butter knife that you have
- Needing a notepad, not using the spare napkin you have
Overcoming functional fixednessEdit
Functional fixedness will always be prevalent to some degree within our cognitions, it is human nature to make patterns and connections between previous and current experience. Functional fixedness can become an issue when it inhibits us from achieving set goals. There has been vast research that looks to outline ways that functional fixedness can be reduced or overcome.
Inhibition in creative problem-solvingEdit
Researchers who are interested in creativity endeavour to specify the factors that can lead to failed originality and problem-solving solutions (Cassotti et al., 2016). A study found that creative problem-solving capabilities can be blocked by mental fixation, and acknowledges the functional fixedness phenomenon as an example (Storm & Angello, 2010). The same study examined inhibition and its effects on creative problem-solving, a key component of functional fixedness, found that those with an inhibitory account were better at overcoming fixation during problem-solving that those without inhibition (Storm & Angello, 2010).
Functional fixedness may occur due to intuitively generated mental representations of objects and their functions, suggesting that inhibitory control could suppress the intuitive response leading the person to consider possible alternatives (Cassotti et al., 2016). This supports the research into children and the instances of functional fixedness in childhood, consistent with the findings that children under 5 do not need inhibitory control as it has not yet developed like older children, adolescents and adults (German & Defeyter, 2000). This research may help us to overcome functional fixedness by implementing inhibiting thought processes that lead to cognitive biases.
During innovative problem solving, individuals discover new features to reach a solution. This suggested to researchers that determining which aspects inhibits this discovery would allow for the development of techniques to overcome said obstacles (McCaffrey, 2012). The generic-parts technique (GPT), proposed by McCaffrey involves two questionsbeing asked continuously as a person creates a diagram. The aim of the GPT is to assist "subjects [to] think beyond the common functions associated with an object and its parts"(McCaffrey, 2012). With a focus on functional fixedness being the overlooking of parts, material, size and shape in the experiment, the study found that those in the GPT group performed 67.4% better than those in the control group, suggesting that GPT is useful in preventing functional fixedness becoming a block to problem-solving (McCaffrey, 2012). This research may help us to reduce the occurrence of functional fixedness when given an object by uncovering deeper thought and invoking different mental processes than usual. The GPT technique strips away the layers of associated uses from an object and its part, allowing for functional fixedness to be overcome.
Neural basis of idea generationEdit
The generation of new and useful ideas can be inhibited by cognitive biases that lead to mental fixations, including that of functional fixedness. A study investigated the neural basis of mental fixations and the processes required to overcome fixation effects during creative problem-solving. The findings suggest that in the condition where functional fixedness was maximised, participants maintained frontal alpha synchronisation and scored high in the temporo-parietal regions during idea generation (Camarda et al., 2018). These findings are in line with other research that have found the temporo-parietal junction to be a key brain structure within creative problem-solving and perception (Huberle & Karnath, 2011). This research may help us to mitigate the occurence and effects of functional fixedness as we may be able to stimulate certain brain structures to elicit the wanted response.
Functional fixedness is a type of cognitive bias that occurs when previous information is applied to a problem-solving tasks, and prevents the simplest answer being achieved. It has its roots in Gestalt psychology; key figures include Karl Duncker, Abraham Luchins, Sam Glucksberg and Norman Maier. Functional fixedness is constructed through learnt experiences and knowledge. Examples include the Einstellung effect, the candle problem, the water jar problem and the two-cords problem. Functional fixedness can be overcome by inhibition during creative problem-solving, the use of the generic-parts technique, understanding the neural basis, and stimulus modality.
End Of Chapter QuizSelect your answers and then press submit.
- Abraham Luchins (Wikipedia)
- Candle problem (Wikipedia)
- Cognitive psychology (Wikipedia)
- Einstellung effect (Wikipedia)
- Functional fixedness (Wikipedia)
- Gestalt (Wikipedia)
- Gestalt psychology (Wikipedia)
- Karl Duncker (Wikipedia)
- Kurt Koffka (Wikipedia)
- Max Wertheimer (Wikipedia)
- Motivation and emotion book: Cognitive category (Wikiversity)
- Norman Maier (Wikipedia)
- Sam Glucksberg(Wikipedia)
- Wolfgang Köhler (Wikipedia)
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- Design ruts and functional fixedness (YouTube)
- Functional fixedness and 5 ways to beat it (YouTube)
- The cognitive bias keeping us from innovating (Harvard Business Review)
- What is functional fixedness? (YouTube)
- The puzzle of motivation (TedTalk)