In this last blog post, I would like to talk about two forms of problem solving: Functional fixedness, and something labeled more informally as “thinking outside the box.”
Functional Fixedness is a cognitive bias that tends to limit a person’s interpretation of what objects can be used for. It was conceived by Gestalt psychologists, who basically focus on perceptions and behaviors. Functional fixedness is considered a process of problem solving. However, the fixedness portion of the title is what stops people from being able to solve certain given problems. Basically, our fixed perceptions of how objects are supposed to be used can set up a road block when it comes to thinking of different methods to use objects. For example, the famous example of the matchbook and the candle is an example of functional fixedness examined by Duncker in 1945. In the example, participants of a study had to figure out how to make sure a candle did not drip wax onto the table, but they were only given a book of matches, a little box of thumb tacks, and the candle. I like to think of functional fixedness problems as trick questions. To solve this problem, you have to think outside of the metaphorical box and not only know that you have to use the box that the tacks were in, but also know that you have to use the wall in front of you, which was not a specifically spoken about object.
I wanted to explore some other, closer to real life, examples of functional fixedness, which brought me to this site. Here, you can see some pretty creative solutions (some better than others obviously) to certain problems or situations. For example, this fountain made out of little kid pools! A much cooler example of functional fixedness, in my opinion, is the Rube Goldberg machine! As stated on Wikipedia, a Rube Goldberg machine can be defined as “a contraption, invention, device, or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion…” The Rube Goldberg machine takes functional fixedness out of the picture completely, because to make one, it’s pretty impossible to have the mindset that, say, a candle is a candle and it’s only purpose is to give off light. Instead, a Rube Goldberg machine might show us that a candle is something meant to burn a rope to set off the next reaction in a chain of events. It’s a little far-fetched, but bear with me here. To show a popular example of the wonderful Rube Goldberg machine, I suggest watching OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” music video.
In this video we see a toy truck being used to start a chain reaction of dominos, some spoons becoming platforms for little metal balls to bounce off of, a tire being used to turn on a series of lamps, and a teapot being used as a weight. These are all very abnormal functions of these objects, therefore demonstrating that the creators of this odd machine have absolutely no problem getting past their functional fixedness.
For those of you who are more interested in hearing about “thinking outside the box” or just want something a little more interactive (and at times infuriating) I recommend:
The Impossible Quiz.
I remember this little internet gem from my middle school years and I never understood it at all. The questions that you’ll see will almost always trip you up if you aren’t careful and really think outside the box. Our textbook calls things like this and the nine dot problem difficult because of an inappropriate problem-solving set –meaning that we don’t typically answer questions the way these problems are meant to be solved because we assume that there are certain rules when playing a game (like this quiz) or solving a problem.
On a personal note, I wonder if these problem solving techniques could naturally become more apparent in our lives, or less apparent, as we grow older. For example, in terms of functional fixedness I believe that as we get older, we assume a more fixed set of perceptions because we learn more and more that objects have specific uses. However, I also think that in terms of “thinking outside the box” we become better at that over time, at least in the case of the Impossible Quiz. Just glancing at it now after not having seen it since middle school, certain questions are more obvious to me because I know more about the world than I did when I was 12. For example [Spoiler Alert], question 6 is basically asking what do you get when you divide an onion? I didn’t know that the answer was shallots when I was 12 because I don’t think I even know that a shallot was a word or a real thing. But anyways, that’s all I’ve got on the subject of age and problem solving techniques. I hope you found these topics as interesting as I did!