Understanding Functional Fixedness As A Cognitive Bias

Cognitive biases are little unconscious tricks and shortcut that our brain uses to help us make sense of the world. Functional fixedness is one such example of a cognitive bias, in this case, a bias for seeing the function of something as “fixed” on whatever the traditional use for that object is.

For a fork, it’s eating. For a pen, it’s writing. For a bike it’s cycling. But if we stop and consider for a moment, there are loads more things we could do with a fork, a pen, or a bike. This article shall look at understanding functional fixedness as a cognitive bias.

Our tendency to see the whole

The human brain has adapted to notice patterns and group things together, rather than see the individual parts.

This makes sense as an effective use of cognitive resources (easier to see one whole, than see 15 separate parts), and most of the time it doesn’t cause us any issues to perceive the world around us in this way.

But it does mean that we often miss out on the details of life, and can sometimes jump to conclusions based on incomplete information.

Optical illusions, such as the Kanizsa Triangle, demonstrate this phenomenon well – we can see a triangle, even though there isn’t a triangle in front of us. Our brain instinctively seeks out the pattern in the parts and delivers us an entirely imaginary whole.

In many cases, functional fixedness can prevent people from seeing the full range of uses for an object. It can also impair our ability to think of novel solutions to problems.

How Functional Fixedness Influences Problem-Solving

Imagine that you need to drive a nail into a wall so you can hang a framed photo. Unable to find a hammer, you spend a significant amount of time searching your house to find the missing tool. A friend comes over and suggests using a metal wrench instead to pound the nail into the wall.

Why didn’t you think of using the metal wrench? Psychologists suggest that something known as functional fixedness often prevents us from thinking of alternative solutions to problems and different uses for objects.

A Classic Example

Here’s one well-known example of functional fixedness at work:

You have two candles, numerous thumbtacks, and a box of matches. Using only these items, try to figure out how to mount the candles to a wall.

How would you accomplish this? Many people might immediately start trying to use the thumbtacks to affix the candles to the wall. Due to functional fixedness, you might think of only one way to directly use the thumbtacks. There is another solution, however. Using the matches, melt the bottom part of each candle and then use the hot wax to stick the candle to the matchbox. Once the candles are attached to the box, use the thumbtacks to stick the box to the wall.

Functional fixedness is just one type of mental obstacle that can make problem-solving more difficult.

Functional fixedness isn’t always a bad thing. In many cases, it can act as a mental shortcut allowing you to quickly and efficiently determine a practical use for an object.

For example, imagine that someone has asked you to open a toolbox and find a tool that can be used to loosen a screw. It would take a tremendous amount of time if you had to analyze every item in the box to determine how effective it might be at performing the task. Instead, you are able to quickly grab a screwdriver, the most obvious item for loosening a screw.

I hope you find this article helpful.

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A Public Speaker and Freelancer who is Interested in Writing articles relating to Personal Development, Love and Marriage.