Archive for August 3rd, 2015

August 3, 2015

Functional Fixedness

candle problem

outside the box by Leo Cullum

Functional fixedness [fiks-ed-nes] is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. The concept originated in Gestalt Psychology, which emphasizes holistic processing (e.g., ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’). German American psychologist Karl Duncker defined functional fixedness as a ‘mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.’ This ‘block’ limits the ability of an individual to use components given to them to complete a task, as they cannot move past the original purpose of those components.

For example, if someone needs a paperweight, but they only have a hammer, they may not see how the hammer can be used as a paperweight. Functional fixedness is this inability to see a hammer’s use as anything other than for pounding nails; the person couldn’t think to use the hammer in a way other than in its conventional function. When tested, five year old children show no signs of functional fixedness. At that age, any goal to be achieved with an object is equivalent to any other goal. However, by age seven, children have acquired the tendency to treat the originally intended purpose of an object as special.

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