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Functional Fixedness
Functional Fixedness
Functional Fixedness
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Things were better when you were 5-years-old. 

According to the research, that’s the age when you most use ...

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nunc ita separantur, ut disiuncta sint, quo nihil potest esse perversius. Illa videamus, quae a te de amicitia dicta sunt. Mihi enim satis est, ipsis non satis. An eum discere ea mavis, quae cum plane perdidiceriti nihil sciat? Quid, cum fictas fabulas, e quibus utilitas nulla elici potest, cum voluptate legimus? Itaque mihi non satis videmini considerare quod iter sit naturae quaeque progressio. Sed utrum hortandus es nobis, Luci, inquit, an etiam tua sponte propensus es? Duo Reges: constructio interrete. Nulla profecto est, quin suam vim retineat a primo ad extremum. Hoc ne statuam quidem dicturam pater aiebat, si loqui posset.

Mihi vero, inquit, placet agi subtilius et, ut ipse dixisti, pressius. Claudii libidini, qui tum erat summo ne imperio, dederetur. Ergo et avarus erit, sed finite, et adulter, verum habebit modum, et luxuriosus eodem modo. Beatus autem esse in maximarum rerum timore nemo potest. Nam Pyrrho, Aristo, Erillus iam diu abiecti. Ut placet, inquit, etsi enim illud erat aptius, aequum cuique concedere. Quod si ita se habeat, non possit beatam praestare vitam sapientia. Sic enim censent, oportunitatis esse beate vivere.

Itaque a sapientia praecipitur se ipsam, si usus sit, sapiens ut relinquat. Non dolere, inquam, istud quam vim habeat postea videro; Sed nonne merninisti licere mihi ista probare, quae sunt a te dicta? Et ais, si una littera commota sit, fore tota ut labet disciplina. Quamquam te quidem video minime esse deterritum. Ita fit cum gravior, tum etiam splendidior oratio. Falli igitur possumus. Quod cum dixissent, ille contra. Recte dicis; Quae cum magnifice primo dici viderentur, considerata minus probabantur.

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Actionable Takeaways
  • Seperate the task from the solution. 

It’s all too ...

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Qua ex cognitione facilior facta est investigatio rerum occultissimarum. Claudii libidini, qui tum erat summo ne imperio, dederetur. Sed haec nihil sane ad rem; Duo Reges: constructio interrete. Cenasti in vita numquam bene, cum omnia in ista Consumis squilla atque acupensere cum decimano.

Igitur neque stultorum quisquam beatus neque sapientium non beatus. Dolor ergo, id est summum malum, metuetur semper, etiamsi non aderit; Ergo in gubernando nihil, in officio plurimum interest, quo in genere peccetur. Conferam tecum, quam cuique verso rem subicias; Quicquid enim a sapientia proficiscitur, id continuo debet expletum esse omnibus suis partibus; Praeclare hoc quidem. Sed tamen omne, quod de re bona dilucide dicitur, mihi praeclare dici videtur. Cur igitur easdem res, inquam, Peripateticis dicentibus verbum nullum est, quod non intellegatur? Quantum Aristoxeni ingenium consumptum videmus in musicis? Et hunc idem dico, inquieta sed ad virtutes et ad vitia nihil interesse.

Faceres tu quidem, Torquate, haec omnia; Egone quaeris, inquit, quid sentiam? Huius ego nunc auctoritatem sequens idem faciam.


There are few substantial critiques of Functional Fixedness and it is a reasonably accepted heuristic. There have been some debates on nuances — for example, one study claiming that monetary incentives made Functional Fixedness worse, with another unable to repeat that result. But I was unable to find any studies that deny its existence or impact. 

Indeed, variations on the Candle Problem persist — with a written version delivered at Stanford University resulting in similar results.

Functional Fixedness was even put to the test with non-industrialised societies to determine the impact of cultural factors — with a recent study conducted within the Amazon region of Ecuador to compare with industrial culture. The results seemed to demonstrate that Functional Fixedness is culture blind and not related to the level of industrialisation or technology of a society. 

In Practice

Adapting during coronavirus. 

Much of our world changed during 2020. Many people were left with redundant buildings or businesses that relied on pre-Covid conditions and practices. 

Meanwhile, some companies broke through Functional Fixedness to reinvent themselves. A wonderful example of this was the Rubbens gin distillery in Belgium which moved quickly, redirecting its production of alcohol to produce disinfectant by March 2020. Other distilleries around the world soon followed suit. 

Breaking Functional Fixedness in tech startups. 

About a decade ago Canadian billionaire Daniel Butterfield, was trying to launch an online game called Glitch. Ever heard of it? Me neither. 

At the time the team created an internal messaging system to coordinate their work on the game. It was a little while in before they realised that the messaging system had more value than the game itself — and so Slack was launched. 

The Candle Problem.

This model is still best described through Duncker’s original Candle Problem from 1945. In the experiment, participants were given the following objects: 

  • A box of thumbnails

  • Matches

  • A candle

They were then asked to attach the candle to the wall while ensuring that wax would not drip on the table below once lit. The clock is ticking, how would you solve this problem? Pause for a moment and consider what you would do.

You might try pinning the candle directly to the wall or melting the candle to stick it to the wall. Both would leave the table covered in wax as the candle burnt down. A small proportion of people discovered the real solution. 

Meanwhile, another group of participants were given the same task, but were given the following objects: 

  • A box

  • Thumbnails

  • Matches

  • A candle

For those playing at home, you’ll notice that the object list is identical to the first one — only this time the thumbnails were not placed in the box.

This subtle change made the ‘box’ an object in itself and a potential part of the solution rather than just a container for thumbnails. It broke the Functional Fixedness related to, dare I say it, ‘in the box thinking.’

This slight tweak resulted in almost all participants solving the problem — simply pinning the box to the wall and placing the candle inside it. 

Angels on a pin. 

Angels on a Pin is a 1959 essay by American academic test designer Alexander Calandra describing a case where a colleague was about to give a student zero to a Physics question. The question was ‘Show how it is possible to determine the height of a building with the aid of a barometer.'

The student's answer was to tie the barometer to a rope, lower the rope and measure the resulting distance. Technically correct, but not the physics assessment they were looking for. 

The academics decided to give the student another chance, asking them to demonstrate knowledge of physics in their next attempt. The student’s second answer was to drop the barometer from the top of the roof and time how long it took to hit the ground, then use the formula S = 0.5at squared to calculate the height. 

The student was able to offer several other options including measuring the barometer versus building shadows, creating a pendulum with the barometer and comparing gravity at the different heights, or offer the barometer to the superintendent if he revealed the height of the building. 

All of the answers continued to expose the Functional Fixedness of the academics who crafted the original question. 

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Origins & Resources

The term Functional Fixedness was coined by Karl Duncker in 1945, who described it as a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.” His original study involved the Candle Problem, outlined in the overview above. 

This Candle Problem, in many ways, has become a de facto test of creative insights, leading to the 2009 study by William Maddux and Adam Galinsky to assess the impact of travelling and living overseas on creativity — they concluded that a period spent adjusting to living (not just travelling) abroad did increase creativity.

My Notes

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