The Candle Problem

Do you suffer from functional fixedness?

Let’s hope not but let’s find out using a classic test of creative problem solving.

The Candle Problem was developed by Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945 and it works as follows:

Tell students that they are in a room with a table pushed up against the wall. On the table there is a candle, a box of drawing pins, and a book of matches. Their challenge is to affix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below.

Do not give students access to the objects – say that they will have to visualise and verbalise their solutions rather than use the objects to show you.

When Duncker did this experiement he found that people had a hard time seeing the box in any way other than a thing containing drawing pins.

In a variation of this problem he had the drawing pins presented to the participants outside the box, and they were much more likely to figure out the tack-box-to-wall strategy.

The test challenges functional fixedness, a cognitive bias that makes it difficult to use familiar objects in abnormal ways.

For the solution, click here.

Functional fixedness is like a mental block. In this problem we don’t always see the box as having a useful function for solving the problem. In order to overcome functional fixedness, you have to ‘think outside the box.’

In 1962 Sam Glucksberg, a Canadian professor at Princeton repeated this problem but this time he had two groups of people solve the task. To one group he offered a monetary incentive for the fastest time to solve the problem, and the other group he did not. What happened?

Glucksberg discovered that subjects who were offered this incentive, on average, took 3.5 minutes longer to solve the problem than those who weren’t.

There’s another twist. In a 2000 study, Tim German and Margaret Defeyter found the 6- and 7-year-olds show signs of functional fixedness, but 5-year-olds appear immune to it:

“Rather than taking into account only the proper function of an object, they adopt an agents-goals view of function in which any intentional use of an object can be its function.”

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