4.5 Overcoming Functional Fixedness with Creativity
In the 1980s, the world was introduced to a popular television show called MacGyver. In it, secret agent Angus MacGyver routinely saved the day through his incredible ability to turn everyday objects into useful tools that could resolve whatever crisis he was in. While MacGyver was fictional, he is a real inspiration to anyone trying to overcome functional fixedness.
Functional fixedness is a psychological term for a cognitive block in which a person sees an object only for its most common use. When you look at a pillow, you think of something soft to lean on. Your mind is fixed on the function of the pillow, while ignoring the other potential uses for it. Could you wear it like a hat? Could you take it apart and make a sling for a broken arm or fuel for fire? Functional fixedness is commonly identified by psychologists as one of the most critical blocks to innovation. Overcoming it, however, can bring out the MacGyver in all of us.
The Theories of Functional Fixedness
Understanding functional fixedness requires a quick look at where this idea comes from. Functional fixedness is often understood through the lens of Gestalt psychology, which focuses on a wholistic view of things. The concept was largely developed by German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler. Kohler claimed that human perception worked by first identifying the whole and then understanding the individual components within.
So, by Gestalt psychology, our minds see something and understand it primarily as a whole object, not a series of associated components. In the 1930s, psychologist Karl Duncker took this one step further and argued that human minds associate objects with a common use. Rather than seeing something like a pillow for its individual components, the mind first sees it as a whole object intended for one specific purpose. Since this tends to be an automatic, subconscious process, it can become difficult to overcome. Thus, the theory of functional fixedness was born.
Our minds may tend to automatically see the whole object and fixate on a singular function, but that does not mean we cannot teach ourselves to think of things in other ways. Overcoming functional fixedness requires mental discipline, but through various creative practices you can train your mind to disassociate objects from their traditional function and see them in new ways.
If functional fixedness comes from a tendency to associate the whole object with a common purpose, then why not take apart the whole object? Recombination is the breaking of a whole into individual components to allow for their reorganization. Seeing objects as individual parts helps your mind disassociate them from one use and allows for new combinations to be made.
This phenomenon has recently been studied by psychologist and innovations specialist Tony McCaffrey. McCaffrey conducted experiments in which participants were given everyday objects and asked to perform a series of non-conventional tasks with them. The first group, the control, solved about half of the problems. The other group was taught what McCaffrey calls the generic parts technique. In this method, the whole object is broken down into individual parts. However, even this can be biased, as McCaffrey demonstrated in experiments with candles. When you break down a candle, what do you get? Most people say wax and a wick, but even the term wick implies a specific function. By not only identifying individual components but also labeling them in the most generic ways possible, you remove all associative barriers. A wick becomes a string or even a bundle of fibers, and suddenly your mind thinks of it differently. In McCaffrey’s experiments, groups using this technique were able to complete over 80% of the tasks.
Overcoming functional fixedness means improving flexibility. In psychology, flexibility is the ability to accept your thoughts about a situation and adjust them to achieve a goal. Breaking from routines, consciously trying to learn something new every day, and making efforts to expose yourself to new experiences are all techniques commonly used to increase psychological flexibility. In turn, a more flexible mind is more easily able to break from functional fixedness.
Incubation and Insight
The goal of techniques like improving psychological flexibility is to train your mind to more automatically disassociate objects and common function. You want this to be easier, requiring less conscious effort. Basically, you want it to be a matter of insight. Insight is another idea developed by Wolfgang Kohler that describes the sudden realization of a solution. It’s that ”a-ha!” or ”Eureka!” moment when your mind seemingly discovers a different use for that object you had previously understood only through functional fixedness.
Insight is a key part of creativity and innovation, and it can be encouraged. Researchers have found that insight often occurs only after incubation, or letting a problem sit in your subconscious for a while. When working with a task, if overcoming functional fixedness is not going well, take some time away from it. Give your mind a break, let it wander, and let the problem melt into your subconscious for a bit. You may be surprised what sort of insight occurs. Even MacGyver had to start somewhere.
Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that strongly associates an object with its most common use. While this is an efficient way for our minds to understand the world, it can impair innovation. The concept comes from Gestalt psychology, largely developed by Wolfgang Kohler, which focuses on the interdependency of the parts and the whole. Functional fixedness can be overcome through attempts at recombination, such as the generic parts technique that breaks objects into individual, generically identified components. Sometimes, overcoming functional fixedness just requires incubation, letting the idea sit in the subconscious to achieve insight, the sudden realization of a solution. The overall goal of these is to increase psychological flexibility and teach the mind to more naturally disassociate objects and function. Figure this out, and you can get to MacGyvering.