Tag Archives: Dan Pink

If All You Have is a Hammer…: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 13

The popular ending to the title of this post is, “… everything looks like a nail.” I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase (or some variant thereof) before, right? I bet you didn’t know that this represents an important cognitive bias, though. In fact, didn’t know that this phrase was popularized by one of the giants of psychology — Abraham Maslow. It comes from a book that he published in 1966 — The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. This sentiment behind this phrase is a concept that’s known as functional fixedness.

One of the easiest ways to explain this concept is with a different example — the candle problem. Dan Pink does an excellent job of explaining this in the opening of a TEDTalk he gave a few years ago. I’ve set the video to start just before he begins talking about the candle problem. At about the 3-minute mark, the explanation of functional fixedness ends, but he goes on to talk about an experiment with functional fixedness. Meaning, he couches the importance of functional fixedness in management theory. I’d urge you to come back and watch the remaining 15+ minutes after you’ve finished reading this post:

So, as we can see from the video, it’s hard for people to imagine the box as something other than a receptacle for the tacks. Similarly, when we’re holding the “proverbial hammer,” everything appears as if it’s a nail. One of the most important consequences of functional fixedness is how it contributes to a dearth of creativity. If you’re a manager in a company, maybe you’re not thinking about how you can position your employees to maximize their impact on realizing profits. It’s also possible that you’re not seeing a creative way to reassemble your raw materials (or resources) to design a product that will create a new market!

Ways for Avoiding Functional Fixedness

1) Practice, practice, practice

Probably the easiest and most effective way of overcoming functional fixedness is to practice. What does that mean? Well, take a box of miscellaneous things and see if you can design something fun/creative. The emphasis should be on using those things in a way that they weren’t designed. For instance, if you’re using a toolbox, you might think about how you can use something like wrenches to act as “legs” of a table or as a conductive agent for an electrical circuit.

2) Observant learning — Find examples

Another good way of overcoming functional fixedness is to look at other examples of people who have overcome functional fixedness. When I was giving a presentation on functional fixedness to a group (of college students) about a year ago, I showed the video below. About halfway through the video, one of them remarked: “So, basically, it’s how to be a college student 101.”

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

Put Down the Non-Fiction and Walk Away Slowly

I read a lot of non-fiction. I’ve written about some of the books I’ve read on here (Good to Great, The Art of War, The Art of War (again), etc.), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the articles I share on Facebook (about 5 per day) comes from something I’d read in the past month. I believe it’s important to continually refresh ourselves (through learning). I do that by reading as much as I can — non-fiction.

About 2 years ago, when I decided to go to business school, I read everything about business that I could get my hands on. I read the Heaths, Collins, Christensen, Pink, Godin, and many others. In amongst that reading, I continually came across a piece of wisdom — read fiction. At first, I was a little shocked by it. Read fiction!? And then, I started to understand a little bit more about what the reasons for reading fiction.


Empathy is at the heart of the beginning of the solution to many of the world’s problems. When we empathize, we are able to recognize the emotions that another is feeling. At the root of compassion is empathy. [Note: sympathy is quite different from empathy. Sympathy is simply a concern for another’s well-being, where empathy usually refers to one sharing the same emotional state.] So, now that I’ve explained empathy, I need to tie it back into reading fiction.

Reading fiction ‘improves empathy’, study finds — Sept. 2011 — The Guardian

Reading boosts empathy — May 2012 — The Globe and Mail

Fiction is an exercise in empathy — June 2012 — New York Times

Dots connected?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to continue to read non-fiction — and lots of it. Though, I may start to whittle down the number of non-fiction books I read. I’ve just finished Dan Pink’s most recent To Sell Is Human, and I still want to get through Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats. Once I do that, I plan to make the switch and start reading more fiction. Will you join me?