Innovation vs Dating: Episode #6 – Functional fixedness: Is our brain working against us?


Innovation vs Dating: Episode #6 – Functional fixedness: Is our brain working against us?



Hi, I’m Astrid. I’m an organisational psychologist who specialises in anything innovation, and I’m single. Now, these two things might seem unrelated, but as you’ll see in this series, I assure you they’re not.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine broke up with her long-term partner and started dating someone else soon afterwards; I remember it being literally within weeks. New guy was very different to the ex. He was sporty, he had a swagger about him and he loved playing footy. Previous guy was career focused, and outside of that, mainly interested in sitting down. Very different. She told everyone new guy was perfect “for now” and we all referred to him jokingly as ‘the rebound guy’. Unfortunately for Rebound Guy, this perception really stuck.

Now, of course I would never want to objectify anyone, but if Rebound Guy was an object, we would all have a serious case of functional fixedness. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits us to thinking about using an object only in the way it is (in our perception) traditionally used. It’s the result of our brain being helpful. When we see an object, our brain works efficiently. It immediately remembers what the object is used for. These shortcuts in our brain, or heuristics as we call them in psychology, are important for everyday life. Imagine having to figure out each object’s possible use every time you encounter it. You would struggle to get out the door in the morning. Unfortunately, there is a downside to these shortcuts. They can lead to cognitive bias.

A famous experiment that exposed this bias is known as Duncker’s candle problem. Participants in this experiment were given a book of matches, a box with drawing pins and a candle. They were told to fix the candle to a cork board wall while lit, without letting it drip candle wax on the floor. The majority of people couldn’t work it out. It wasn’t until the researcher removed the drawing pins from the box that participants realised the box didn’t just have to be a container for the drawing pins. It could be attached to the wall as a platform for the candle. They fell into the functional fixedness trap.

Functional fixedness is the enemy of innovation

This psychological trap, this inability to see past the traditional use of objects, products or services is a huge problem for innovation. Businesses often fall into it. Whether it is improving existing products, or finding entirely new ways to use existing products, coming up with innovative solutions requires looking at what’s right in front of you in completely different ways. Coming up with innovative solutions requires you to think outside the box! If you want to dramatically increase your ability to think creatively there is, like with anything in innovation, a process. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Break the object or product you are thinking about down into components or features. More is better. In Duncker’s example, you might, for example, break your objects down into: candles, the box, matches, the book that held the matches, wax, flint, the flat surface in the box, etc.
  • Think about the different uses of your individual components or features. What can they do? What’s their value? In our experiment you might come up with wax’s ability to stick things together; the box’s ability to hold things; the flat surface of the box’s ability to have things stand on it, etc.
  • Think about these components in the context of the problem you are solving. This is where you will be able to make completely new connections in your brain and spark more creative ideas!

Now, against all expectations Rebound Guy and my friend are still going strong. They’re really happy.  It’s like she changed the way rebound is traditionally used. I think it might be time for us to follow her lead!

If you are looking for ways to create new innovations by changing ingrained perceptions that you or others in your organisation hold, I’m always up for a chat to help you with how cognitive biases can be tackled and how you can create better solutions. I’d love to hear from you!

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