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What Is Functional Fixedness?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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The Gestalt psychological term functional fixedness refers to the degree of rigid definition people give to objects, making it difficult to see these objects as possessing functions outside of their definition. In essence, previously understanding a thing to have a specific purpose may interfere with viewing it in any other way, but it also beneficially shortcuts the process of determining what anything is. A person might recognize a tennis ball, for instance, but he may not see it as a good back massager or a way to keep the dog from whining. Most adults display this prejudice, which limits the whole of problem solving. In contrast, younger children show less of this tendency and are likely to problem solve in much more creative ways.

Functional fixedness is almost always explained in relationship to objects. The question of whether people can see past their predetermined idea of what an object does to use it creatively in another way is often asked. Some have suggested that previous multiple uses of an object may interrupt functional fixedness to a degree. A piece of grass could be something one mows or picks or it can create a splendid whistle, for those who learned to whistle on grass. The degree of fixedness may thus depend on the functions a person has assigned something in the past, but these are still likely to be limited.

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It’s not that functional fixedness is necessarily bad. This tendency helps to shortcut thinking operations. A person doesn’t have to pick through an entire toolbox to find the best tool for putting a nail in the wall. He can just pick up a hammer, which saves a lot of time.

Interestingly, children display far less functional fixedness than do adults. They are more likely to explore the capacities and uses of an object. At some point this changes, especially because adults may correct them repeatedly. The definitions of objects become fixed.

One additional way in which functional fixedness can be applied is by evaluating how people act in certain recognizable circumstances. They may fix their behavior in situations that seem familiar, like a fight with a wife or an unpleasant moment at work. In these cases, problem solving may be restricted, too, and the person may not recognize the full range of behaviors or reactions that could be employed, instead.

In most cases, this well-recognized concept creates an argument for greater experimentation or what would be called “thinking outside of the box.” Individuals are encouraged to open their minds to new definitions about how to use things and solve problems, and this may generate creativity. To this end, many teachers offer lessons that require people to abandon functional fixedness, and these may instruct about assumptions and problem solving on several different levels. A Gestalt therapist might also point out to clients the ways in which they appear to limit their creativity or ability to manage complex problems through rigid definitions.

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