“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
Look at this word, then see what mental picture you get: HAMMER. Like most people, you probably see a person’s hand wrapped around a metal or wood stick with an object fixed on top. You may see this object being used to strike other objects. You may imagine the heaviness of the object. The word “hammer” is a mental shortcut that instantly conjures up all the memories and associations you have with that thing. Naming objects is useful.
But the names we give items also creates a barrier to innovative thinking. We have a difficult time seeing that object doing anything else than the task assigned to it. It is also difficult for us to imagine using other objects to do the job of a hammer. It is a condition called Functional Fixedness.
Psychologist Karl Duncker discovered Functional Fixedness when he posed his famous “candle problem.” In this classic 1945 experiment. Duncker sat participants down at a table positioned against a wall. He gave each one a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches, and asked them to attach the candle to the wall. Duncker realized that participants were so “fixated” on the thumbtack box’s traditional function that they couldn’t conceive of it as a possible solution to the problem. Interestingly, in later experiments, participants presented with an empty thumbtack box were twice as likely to solve Dunker’s challenge than those given a full one. Somehow, seeing the box out of context—that is, not performing its usual function of holding thumbtacks—helped them visualize it as a possible solution.
How do you beat fixedness? Tony McCaffery, a postdoctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, suggests a clever little trick – break items into their component parts and give them new, generalized names. This helps you see beyond the object’s traditional function and helps you think more creatively of other functions it can perform. He was featured in this month’s Scientific American MindTM:
“First, break down the items at hand into their basic parts, then name each part in a way that does not imply meaning. Using his technique, a candle becomes wax and string. Seeing the wick as a string is key: calling it a “wick” implies that its use is to be lit, but calling it a “string” opens up new possibilities.”