Functional fixedness refers to rigidity in problem-solving, characterized by a tendency to think of things only in terms of their usual functions. For example, if presented with a hammer, most people would think only of using it as a tool for driving nails.
This tendency can limit a person’s problem-solving ability because it can prevent people from seeing alternative uses for objects.
The opposite of functional fixedness is cognitive flexibility, which refers to the ability to use things in unusual or innovative ways. Cognitive flexibility is one of the most valuable skills that businesses are looking for in potential employees.
And yet, people with strong cognitive flexibility skills are hard to find. In fact, a 2017 survey of over 1,000 CEOs by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) reveals that 77% find it difficult to find employees that can think innovatively.
Definition of Cognitive Flexibility
Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that locks you into a very narrow thinking process. It prevents you from seeing how objects or concepts could be used in ways other than they were intended.
It prevents us from coming up with novel solutions and is a pervasive problem in many industries, including science, engineering, pharmaceuticals, and business.
Functional fixedness is at the heart of being able to think innovatively. The ability to overcome functional fixedness allows people to have that “aha” moment when they suddenly have a great idea.
Examples of Cognitive Flexibility
1. A Hammer is a Hammer
Hammers are very handy tools, especially if you need to drive a nail into a wall to hang a family portrait or that recently purchased Rembrandt.
But what happens if you can’t find a hammer?
If you spend a lot of time searching for it in your toolbox or on a shelf in the garage, you might have a bad case of functional fixedness. However, it might be just as effective to use the brick that’s laying right outside the door on the porch.
A very thick hardcover book might also do the trick.
The point is, there are many other items that could serve the same purpose as a hammer, even though they were not designed for that reason. Being unable to see how a “non-hammer” could be used as a hammer is functional fixedness.
2. The Education System
one of the biggest criticisms of the public education system is that it instills functional fixedness in children.
Mass education involves teaching people how to become employees, teaching them routines and processes, and instilling a ‘true or false’ mentality through the behaviorism approach to education.
The failings of the education system, and its tendency to teach functional fixedness, has led people to start alternative education systems such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools. Similarly, some people choose to homeschool their children.
This is perhaps best presented in Sir Ken Robinson’s viral TED talk about the problems with the education system:
3. Analogous Transfer
When we apply information or knowledge from one situation to another situation, it is called analogous transfer.
This is a version of functional fixedness that is actually very beneficial.
We see it as ‘functional fixedness’ because a person is applying the same idea or concept over and over again, in various domains. To use the hammer analogy again, they are taking that ‘hammer’ and using it in different locations effectively – and that’s good!
For example, students need to learn how to do something in a university classroom and then apply it at work. Here, they are demonstrating the application of one concept in both the educational and workplace domains.
The student takes what they learned in one situation, and then uses it another slightly different situation. The more similar the situations are, the easier the knowledge transfer.
Project management is another example that utilizes analogous transfer.
The basic principles of managing a project are very similar from one project to another. One must set up a schedule of milestones, allocate resources wisely, and assign tasks to team members. Although each project is different, the basic principles of management are the same.
In 2010, news began to leak about PepsiCo developing a new method to reduce the amount of sodium in their snack products.
Too much salt is linked to heart disease, and most Americans consume about twice the amount they need.
The PepsiCo scientists had been working on the problem for years but without success. They tried over and over again, without success.
But PepsiCo realized they were probably suffering from functional fixedness.
In other words, they were stuck in one narrow mindset and couldn’t find a solution.
The company eventually hired an innovation consulting company to help. The consulting company contacted experts from outside the snack business to get a new perspective. The experts came from engineering backgrounds, energy companies, and big pharma.
It was an orthopedics department that found the solution. They, unlike PepsiCo, were able to exercise a unique perspective – in other words, they had cognitive flexibility.
These orthopedic scientists had created a way to make nanoparticles of salt to do their research. As it turns out, their nanoparticles allowed PepsiCo to significantly reduce the sodium content of their snacks and meet government regulations.
This is a classic example of how functional fixedness can be a serious roadblock to innovation – and how importing ideas from other domains can help overcome this roadblock.
5. Gender Roles
In most Western cultures over the past few hundred years, the roles of men and women were clearly defined. The industrial age made those roles even more rigid: men went to work and women stayed home and took care of the house.
That is the way it was.
Then, when the modern feminist movement began it brought a new and very different definition of “men” and “women”. Women started going to work and having careers. They even wanted to become CEOs and Presidents.
For many men, however, it was difficult to accept an alternative conception of gender roles.
They simply could not see women as serving a different purpose other than what they had been doing for so long. They were locked-in to a certain way of thinking.
Stubbornly clinging to gender norms is a society-wide manifestation of functional fixedness.
The story of the invention of penicillin is another story of how overcoming functional fixedness saved the day.
It may be hard to imagine, but at one time a person could die from a simple scrape of the knee.
If the skin was broken and dirt entered the sore, an infection could grow out of control and spread throughout the body. Eventually, this could lead to a very slow and agonizing death.
Fortunately, by pure accident, the miracle of penicillin was discovered. People had known about penicillin before, but it was considered a bit of a nuisance because it was a fungus.
It wasn’t until Alexander Fleming saw it destroying a bacterium in one of his petri dishes did he realize that the annoying fungus had implications for medicine.
Fleming managed to overcome functional fixedness in the medical field by seeing fungus as a potential positive rather than dismissing it as a harmful organism.
If ever there was an example of overcoming functional fixedness that saved millions of lives, this is it.
7. Cross-Cultural Conflict
Most people grow up in one country. They have fully internalized the customs, values, and informal norms of that culture.
But if you move to a foreign country, then you might be in for a bit of culture shock.
Of course, every country is different. The people of each country have their own way of doing things. Making an adjustment to those differences can be a big challenge.
For example, in some countries being punctual is a big priority and being late is considered a cultural taboo. It says a lot about your character and reliability.
Not so in other countries.
It can be quite common, in fact routine, to be an hour-and-a-half late for a meeting and not even give it a second thought.
When a person has trouble making the adjustment, it’s an example of functional fixedness on a cultural scale. It can be very difficult to escape a mindset that has been so deeply ingrained in our thinking for our entire lives.
Why would anyone put a leaf in their cup of water and drink it? Afterall, water is for drinking and leaves serve no purpose at all.
Of course, today we know about tea, but there was a time when the beverage did not exist.
As the story goes, one day the Chinese Emperor Shennong stopped to take a rest under a tree. One of his servants began to boil some water to drink when a leaf floated down and into the pot of boiling water.
At that moment, if the emperor had been bound by functional fixedness, he might have just dismissed this event and had the leaf removed.
However, he detected a pleasant aroma and the water changed color. So, he drank some of the water and found it very refreshing. From that day forward, the world had tea.
9. Stereotype Perpetuation
The assigned attributes of others can be firmly entrenched in our memory and can have a strong impact on our thought processes and actions. When we encounter someone that is different from their “assigned” stereotype it can be quite difficult to process.
We may actually ignore that information and still process their actions through a filter that is consistent with the stereotype. This is a type of functional fixedness in regards to how we form impressions of other people.
This fixed state of mind can be so strong that it fails to alter the stereotype at all. Hence, stereotype perpetuation.
Read Also: Types of stereotypes
10. Child’s Play
Children are excellent at overcoming functional fixedness. You can see this in child’s play (Vaisarova & Carlson, 2021).
Something as simple as a cardboard box can be turned into a car, a spaceship, a house, or just about anything else in the mind of a child. In this sense, young children are actually demonstrating the ability to overcome functional fixedness.
Parents and teachers are often amazed, and delighted, at the creativity of young children.
As we get older, we tend to become more fixed in our thinking and less open to suggestions. Child’s play is a rare example of how children are better at a cognitive process than adults.
Apparently, flatbread has been around for more than 12,000 years. It was probably made by mixing crushed grain with water and then placing it on a hot stone.
It took another 10,000 years before anyone thought to put tomatoes and cheese on it.
Luckily, the tomato was brought to Italy around the 17th century. Street vendors in Naples started putting it on flatbread and pizza was born. This is an example of using an object in a unique way that overcomes functional fixedness.
Of course, other cultures may have invented a slightly different version of pizza. The Greeks, Egyptians, and people from the Middle East also put various toppings on their flatbread.
Functional fixedness is usually considered an obstacle to creativity and problem-solving. It can make it difficult to accomplish simple tasks, like hanging a picture or generating innovative solutions in science and technology. It can even play a role in the perpetuation of stereotypes and gender equality.
It is such a robust problem that large corporations will devote significant human and financial resources trying to counteract it. CEO’s all over the world recognize the value of finding people that can break free from this kind of mental lock.
On the other hand, functional fixedness can also be beneficial. In the case of project management and analogous transfer, applying concepts to other situations produces positive outcomes and is considered a success.
Bassok, M. (2003). Analogical Transfer in Problem Solving. In J. E. Davidson & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The Psychology of Problem Solving. (pp. 343-370). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Duncker, K. (1945). On problem-solving. Psychological Monographs, 58(5), I-113. doi:10.1037/h0093599
Price Waterhouse Coopers. (2017). The talent challenge: Harnessing the power of human skills in the machine age. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/ceo-survey/2017/deep-dives/ceo-survey-global-talent.pdf.
Vaisarova, J., & Carlson, S. M. (2021). When a spoon is not a spoon: Examining the role of executive function in young children’s divergent thinking. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 25, 100161. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2021.100161
Zynga, A. (2013, June 13). The cognitive bias keeping us from innovating. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/06/the-cognitive-bias-keeping-us-from