The cognitive bias that hurts creativity

Published July 16th, 2018

“Think outside the box” – you’ve probably heard it so many times that it’s lost all meaning. It’s not a difficult concept: it involves approaching problems with nonconventional solutions and lateral thinking. Most English speaking adults could give you a definition along those lines (which probably explains why it’s often co-opted as a marketing slogan). “Thinking outside the box” is the cliché solution to a less well-known problem: a cognitive bias called Functional fixedness.

Functional fixedness separates copycats from innovators. It explains our tendency to use objects the way they’re traditionally used. It’s not always a bad thing. Most of our daily ‘problems’ have well-established solutions: we use forks to eat with, beds to sleep in, toothbrushes to clean our teeth – you get the idea. This isn’t to say there’s no room for innovation in our morning routines – it’s just not where most people’s creative energy is focused, which is understandable. Functional fixedness may be fine when doing chores, but it takes its toll when we’re faced with creative tasks and complex problem solving.

If you’ve ever considered the concept of childlike creativity, it’s the antithesis of functional fixedness – according to a study, the cognitive bias doesn’t even appear in children until around the age of 6-7 years old. At age 7, children understand the idea that specific objects are associated with specific functions, which is undeniably an important part of development.

Innovators who are able to work past functional fixedness often reap big rewards. The idea of using structures, objects, and even concepts in nontraditional ways is a hallmark of creativity. Before Wikipedia, encyclopedias functioned solely as references, now they also function as democratic platforms to share knowledge. Before github, the primary function of version control was for coordinating software development within teams – now it’s also at the heart of global software distribution and open source collaboration. Before the iPhone, mobile phones primarily functioned as tools for interpersonal communication, now they’re one of the most popular means of consuming software.

By taking functional fixedness into account during the creative and problem solving processes, it’s possible to systematically overcome it. Taking a deconstructionist approach is one of the more effective methods. By breaking down structures to their core components, form can be decoupled from function. When a structural element is decoupled from its original function, it frees it up to serve another purpose. This is evident in the “Candle Problem“, a popular test to demonstrate functional fixedness in children: only by decoupling the box from its original function (as a container for the thumbtacks) does it become available to be used as part of the solution.

Functional fixedness is something everyone lives with. With practice, it’s possible to identify our own fixedness and make the conscious decision of whether it’s better to innovate or use a conventional solution for a given task.