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How does looking at a coin or a box of matches demonstrate the inability to think creatively? In this lesson, we’ll examine functional fixedness, a cognitive bias that can prevent creative thinking and problem-solving, and discuss ways to overcome it.

Cognitive Bias

What is this and what is it used for? If you’re like most people, you immediately answered that it’s a coin and it’s used as currency to buy things that you need or want.

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Imagine if, every time you saw a coin, you had to figure out all over again what it was, as though it was the first time you’d ever encountered a coin. That would take a lot of time!Luckily, our minds can make shortcuts by creating a memory of a coin and what it’s used for. It’s kind of like a file folder that tells you that a coin is used to buy things. Each time you see a coin, you access the folder and remind yourself what a coin is and how it is used.You can probably see how mental shortcuts, called heuristics by psychologists, can be helpful. Knowing that the coin is used as currency when you see it saves time and effort in your day-to-day life. But sometimes, heuristics can lead to a cognitive bias, which is faulty thinking that leads to a limitation or error.

Let’s look closer at one particular cognitive bias, functional fixedness, and how to overcome it.

Functional Fixedness

Henna has a problem. She’s noticed that a screw in her desk is loose and she needs to tighten it.

But she doesn’t have a screwdriver. What can she do? If you’re like Henna and many other people, you’re probably stumped by this. How can you tighten a screw without a screwdriver?But wait! Henna has something in her pocket that can solve her problem.

In fact, you probably have the same thing. All it takes is a coin inserted into the groove in the head of the screw, and Henna can tighten the screw.If you’re surprised by the idea of using a coin to tighten a screw, you’ve probably fallen victim to the cognitive bias functional fixedness, or ‘the inability to use an object for something other than how it is usually used.

‘ People become ‘fixed’ or ‘locked’ in their way of thinking about the functions of things, which is why it is called functional fixedness.For example, when Henna and most people look at a coin, they think about its most common function, as currency. When Henna only thinks of a coin as currency, she is succumbing to functional fixedness.

If she can get beyond that idea and focus instead on how to use the coin to tighten the screw, she is overcoming functional fixedness.

Mental Sets

Unfortunately, like many cognitive biases, functional fixedness is not easy to overcome. That’s because it is based on a mental set, or ‘a specific way of looking at a problem.’ Remember when Henna looked at the loose screw and couldn’t figure out how to tighten it without a screwdriver? She was using a mental set about how to tighten a screw.Mental sets are pretty good sometimes. For example, when doing her math homework, Henna sees a type of problem that she’s familiar with.

She knows how to solve that problem because she’s done it before. In this case, her mental set, or way of looking at the math problem, works to her benefit.The problem is when mental sets lead to functional fixedness. A really famous example of functional fixedness involves a candle, thumbtacks, and a box of matches. Imagine that I gave you these three things, and asked you to mount the candle on the wall and light it. What do you do?Most people will try to put the thumbtacks through the candle and into the wall.

But the candle is too thick and the thumbtacks won’t go through the candle and into the wall. What now?Henna thinks she’s figured it out. She dumps the matches out of the box and uses the thumbtacks to attach the empty box to the wall. Then she puts the candle inside of the box and lights it with a match. Problem solved, but only once Henna stopped thinking about the materials in terms of how they are usually used.

Overcoming Functional Fixedness

As you’ve probably noticed from the examples we’ve looked at, functional fixedness can be a big barrier to creativity and innovation. For example, originally, the Internet was used by researchers to share data across different locations.

Could you imagine how different it would be if no one had ever broken past functional fixedness to use the Internet in a different way?Henna sees the value of innovation and she wants to be more creative. But how can she get past functional fixedness to be better?Brainstorming is a common way of trying to break out of functional fixedness. For example, if Henna was to take a common object, like a shoe, and try to brainstorm as many ways as possible to use that object, she would be exercising her creativity muscles and overcoming functional fixedness.

At first, it might seem difficult, but it will gradually get easier.Another way of overcoming functional fixedness is through meaning training. This is when people are trained to look at the most basic aspects of a problem. For example, Henna might be trained in the way that a screwdriver works to tighten a screw.

By learning the mechanics behind the relationship between screwdriver and screw, she might then begin to understand that other objects, like coins, can have the same relationship with a screw.Finally, looking at objects as parts instead of whole objects allows people to see the possibilities of the objects. For example, if Henna looks at the boxes of matches as a box, matches, and a sleeve that the box slides into, she might be more likely to notice that she can use the box to mount the candle.

Lesson Summary

A cognitive bias is a type of faulty thinking that results from taking mental shortcuts. One such cognitive bias is functional fixedness, which is the inability to think about or use an object in a way other than the way it is commonly used.

Functional fixedness is based on a mental set, or a specific way of looking at a problem. Brainstorming, meaning training, and looking at objects as parts instead of whole objects can all help overcome functional fixedness in real life.

Functional Fixedness in Psychology Overview

A way to look at the problem
Heuristics mental shortcuts
Cognitive bias faulty thinking that leads to a limitation or error
Functional fixedness the inability to use an object for something other than how it is usually used
Mental set a specific way of looking at a problem
Brainstorming a common way of trying to break out of functional fixedness
Meaning training when people are trained to look at the most basic aspects of a problem
Looking at objects as parts instead of whole objects allows people to see the possibilities of the objects

Learning Outcomes

If you’ve studied the lesson enough, you might subsequently declare that you can:

  • Compare heuristics and cognitive bias
  • Assign meaning to the term ‘functional fixedness’
  • Discuss the use of mental sets
  • Contrast the methods of brainstorming, meaning training and looking at objects as parts of the whole

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