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Functional Fixation

Roni Horowitz
   November, 2000

My son came back from kindergarten one day and proudly presented me with a new play-card that he just added to his cards collection
"I think, therefore I amů(fixated!)"

Why can't we see the solution to a problem although it stares us in the face? Functional fixation as an "idea blocker."

My son came home from kindergarten one day and proudly presented me with a new playing card that he had just added to his collection of cards portraying famous football players that kids purchase and trade. He showed me his new card with pride and a shrewd look in his eyes. I immediately understood that he had got the card using some sort of manipulation. When I asked him how he got the card, he told me - with unhidden satisfaction - the following story:

"I was standing in the kindergarten playground when I saw a boy drop a few cards. Pretending to mind my own business, I walked nonchalantly up to him and then sat down right on top of one of the cards. The boy collected the cards he'd dropped and he didn't notice that one of them was missing. After he left, I picked up the card and put it in my pocket."

Although I was astonished by his resourcefulness, I (naturally) reacted with a good, righteous "telling off" like any civilized father would be expected to do.

Why did I, as well as many other people who've heard the story, feel that this was an exceptional and ingenious way of pilfering a card? It seems to me that people like ideas that conjure up the notion of "I wouldn't have thought of that myself." Because such a notion is common to many people, the following question arises: "What was it about my son's idea that many people considered was impossible for them to think of themselves?"

Cognitive psychology has an explanation, or at least a name, for this phenomenon: it suggests the somewhat awkward term, "fixation," as a pointer to the "mental wall" which separates the problem from its solution. One is said to be "fixated" when one fails to find a solution although the solution components are readily available and the process of arriving at the solution does not entail any complex thinking.

When is it that we are exposed to such fixation? In my view, this actually occurs at any given moment when we think of something - in the sense of: "I think, therefore I amů(fixated!)" What are the reasons for the existence of such a phenomenon? To my mind, fixation, almost like any other obtrusive biological state, is actually the other side of the coin - a generally positive phenomenon.

Fixation creates a closed frame of mind, guarding us against a situation of "over thinking" and enabling us to reach fast, albeit often not optimal, solutions. This is perhaps the reason why creative people (who suffer less from fixation) sometimes experience difficulty in finding solutions to relatively straightforward problems.

The term encapsulates several occurrences that all have the symptom, "blindness to the solution," in common - that same solution that stares us in the face. One of the first fixations to be identified and diagnosed was the fixation that prevents us from thinking of a different use for an object that already has (in the given circumstances) a particular use. This type of fixation has been given the term, "functional fixation."

One of the first psychologists to identify this sort of fixation was Dunker, who was associated with the Gestalt school of thought. Dunker was not at all functionally fixated when he planned the following experiment:

A group of examinees were randomly divided into two sub-groups. Members of the first sub-group were shown into a room containing a table on which the following objects were placed: a half open box containing a few drawing pins, a few matches, and a candle. The task of the examinees was to attach the candle to the wall and light it using the available items.

The experiment environment was set up in such a way that the candle could be attached to the wall using the following method only: using a drawing pin, attach the drawing pin box to the wall so that it supports the candle. Then affix the candle to the box by melting some candle wax (see picture 1.)

Such a solution involves overcoming the functional fixation associated with the fact that the primary function of the drawing pin box (which is to contain pins) hinders the thinking of another use for it (i.e. as a place to provide support for the candle). Only a few examinees from the first group managed to solve this problem. The majority of the second sub-group, on the other hand, succeeded in placing the candle in its required place.

The difference between the two groups was that the members of the second group saw the drawing pin box after the drawing pins were taken out (the pins were scattered on the table.) Taking the pins out of the box probably weakened the association between the box and it's normal function, and it increased the availability of the idea of using the box for something else.

Dunker's experiment seemingly points to the fact that functional fixation goes into action only when a certain component has a certain function, and therefore we have trouble in finding just "one more" function. The following example demonstrates the fact that functional fixation can also come into play when the object in question seems to perform no function at all.