Functional Fixedness as a Cognitive Bias

Functional Fixedness
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Functional fixedness is a type of cognitive bias that involves a tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way. For example, you might view a thumbtack as something that can only be used to hold paper to a corkboard. But what other uses might the item have?

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.

2 Sources
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  1. American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology: functional fixedness. 2020.

  2. Munoz-Rubke F, Olson D, Will R, James KH. Functional fixedness in tool use: Learning modality, limitations and individual differences. Acta Psychol (Amst). 2018;190:11-26. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2018.06.006

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.