Functional Fixedness

Chris Canova and Josh Young


Functional fixedness is a phenomenon in which a mental block hampers problem solving by not allowing a person to associate a new function for an object that was previously associated with another function or purpose. This 'block' limits the ability of a person to move past an original intention of an object in a way so that it can be used in a more novel way to help solve the problem. This concept originated in the theories of Gestalt psychology, where an emphasis was placed on holistic processing and the whole is seen as separate from the sum of the parts.


So in what situations is functional fixedness a problem? Here are some examples that famous psychologists and other researchers have come up with to highlight just how impairing functional fixedness can be in solving somewhat simple problems.

In a problem that he devised to demonstrate functional fixedness, psychologist Karl Dunker gave participants a candle, a box of tacks, and a box of matches. He asked the participants to attach the candle to the wall so that it would not drip onto the table below.

external image dunker-candle-1.png

Dunker found that most participants would attempt to solve the problem by affixing the candle to the wall directly with the tacks or by melting it and sealing it against the wall. However, as you can see below, the most efficient and clearly the best solution to the problem is done by placing the candle in the box that held the tacks, and tacking the box against the wall, not the candles. In terms of functional fixedness, the reason that most participants could not solve the problem by using the box as a candle holder is because they were 'fixed' on the box's original use as the tack holder and could not think of it in another way that would allow them to solve the problem. However, when participants were just given an empty box and tacks, they were almost twice as likely to solve the problem by using the box as a candle holder.

external image dunker-candle-2.png

The following link to a video shows another example of functional fixedness. See if you can solve the riddle.

Elevator Problem

Stuck? Hint: Try using one of the objects that Otto has on the elevator to solve the problem. If you're still stuck, watch the following link to see the solution:

Elevator Problem Solution

As you can see, most people would never think that Otto would be too short to reach the floor fifteen button and that he would use his umbrella to reach it on rainy days. That is because you have a 'fixed' representation that Otto must be tall enough to reach all the buttons on the elevator. After all, he is a man. In addition, most people are fixed on the fact that the umbrella is used to block off the rain. It never occurs to them that the reason that Otto can go directly to the fifteenth floor on rainy days is because he is so short that his umbrella has to be used to press the button. This is an example of functional fixedness because it shows a way in which a mental 'block' does not allow for the use of objects in ways that deride from the norm.

Avoiding Functional Fixedness

The basic problem in functional fixedness is that through use of a object we begin to frame things way to tightly. Instead of seeing things for all the possible uses, we just look at them for the function they are designed for. To overcome this, many researchers suggest that breaking an object down into parts, ignoring its original function, is important. For example, instead of viewing a brick as merely a object to construct, it can be viewed as a paperweight, doorstop, emergency window breaker, a brake on a steep hill a coloring utensil, and in this video, a pet.

There is no cure for functional fixedness, no sudden process that can be completed where suddenly any mental wall can be removed. Rather, the best process for becoming less enslaved to functional fixedness is to fight the power of it by trying to think creatively. Eventually, categories and limitations on objects will be removed, and you will be able to make much better use of the things in your life.


"Start-up studies: A pop quiz." Web. 17 Jan 2011. < 10/30/start-up-studies-a-pop- quiz/>.

Father Ted Father Jack's Brick. Web. 17 Jan 2011. < v=lLKvponqV4Q&feature=player_ embedded#!>.

Adamson, R.E. (1952). Functional Fixedness as related to problem solving: A repetition of three experiments. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 44, 288-291.