How This One Cognitive Bias Is Damaging Your Creativity and Relationships

Most of the time, we don’t give much thought to the way our brain works. For the most part, our brains work so well that they don’t call much attention to themselves and we just let them ‘get on’ with what they need to do while we worry about other things. Sometimes though, the systems that allow the brain to work can falter, and when this happens it’s important that we understand why and that we know how to solve the problem.

Cognitive biases are a perfect example of this. These are cases where the brain ‘overgeneralises’ and the systems that once allowed us to operate more efficiently in the wild, end up actually presenting obstacles in our modern environment and preventing us from achieving our full potential. And because we aren’t aware that our brain is doing it, we can often carry on oblivious and end up getting ourselves into trouble or just limiting our performance as a result.

There are countless different kinds of cognitive bias, but in this article we’re going to look at just one: functional fixedness. It’s one that might currently be bringing you down and ruining your performance in the workplace, in your personal life and in your creative pursuits; but once you’re aware of it you can start finding ways to manage the problem.

What Is Functional Fixedness?

The general gist of functional fixedness, is that we have a tendency to think of things in one context only. If someone hands you a mobile phone for instance, then you might think of it as a phone only, and not realise that you could use it as a makeshift bookmark when you get up to go to the loo.

The classic example of functional fixedness is the candle task. This is an experiment used by researchers, in which participants are given a box of tacks and a candle, and asked to fix the candle to the wall in a way that would prevent the wax from touching the wallpaper. Most people will attempt to tack the candle to the wall, which is of course wrong, and creative types might even alter the shape of the candle by melting it. Which is again wrong…

The correct solution is to tack the box that the tacks came in to the wall and to stand the candle in that. It’s an obvious solution once you know it, but most people get it wrong. Why? Because they’re fixated on the idea that the box is for the tacks. They see the item in a particular context, and then they struggle to think of it out of that context.

This functional fixedness is not a huge problem for most of us most of the time. However it’s easy to see how it could prevent us from making full use of our resources, or from being as creative as possible or even coming up with ways to have fun. The ability to think ‘outside the box’ is almost entirely dependent on removing this problem – a new mobile phone app for instance is born simply by someone realising a new use for an everyday object.

A bookmark app… hmm…

In theory, functional fixedness could even explain why you never noticed the love of your life sitting across from you in the office. They’re just a colleague, right?

Where Does it Come From?

So where does this functional fixedness come from? One interesting piece of research shows that children below the age of five don’t show any signs of functional fixedness. This would suggest that the bias is learned over time, as we come to associate particular items with particular jobs and thus start to struggle to think of them in any other way.

As we evolved in the wild, making assumptions about the role of an item made a lot of sense from the standpoint of efficiency and effectiveness. If you think about all the possible uses for a piece of meat, then you’ll probably starve before you’ve eaten it.

But nevertheless, at some point we had to think outside the box and try wearing the skin of that piece of meat. At some point we had to try using that stick as a club, or as a lighter…

How to Stop it

It’s starting to look as though functional fixedness is nothing short of devastating to even our evolution as a race… so how do you stop it from holding you back?

One method is called ‘analogous transfer’. Analogous transfer, essentially means taking away the context and attempting to solve an analogous problem with no narrative. Thus if you were trying to get creative solutions from a team, you might challenge them to try and describe the problem rather than situation or the reasons that you need it solved.

Another strategy you can use is to look at each ‘element’ in the problem and to forget what you’re trying to achieve. List every resource you have, then list every use for each of those resources. This way you can essentially map out all of your possibilities and all of your limitations and that way you may find that creative solutions are more forthcoming.

The ‘generic parts’ technique put forward by McCaffrey, described breaking down each part of an object and each use in a similar way to this, as a way to remove the items from their context. First ask if a part can be subdivided down into smaller constituents. Then ask what the object does, and whether your current description of it implies a use. If the description does suggest a use, then try to describe it in a different way based on those constituent parts. You don’t have string then (which we all know is for tying), you have ‘X metres of woven fabric’.

Be careful though, as if you do this too effectively you can end up losing the bigger picture. As with everything, it’s getting the balance right which is crucial.



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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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