Tag Archives: Functional fixedness

A New Way to Use Pinterest: Financial Charts

I don’t remember when I first signed up for Pinterest, but I do remember that when I did, I had “big” plans of using the site to create a vision board. As you can see from my Pinterest page, I haven’t used it since I signed up. There are any number of explanations I could offer as to why I haven’t really done what I had initially thought I would, but this post isn’t about my usage of Pinterest, no, it’s about Josh Brown’s.

You see, many people (or at least it certainly seems like it) use Pinterest for shopping. That is, they see something they like and Pinterest is a way to bookmark that image. There are also those businesses who use Pinterest to get a better understanding of how their customers like or dislike their products. There are those hobbyists or designers who are trying to showcase their ideas. There are even people who share recipes through Pinterest. In all that I’ve heard of Pinterest, never had I heard someone use it to share financial charts.

Can anyone tell me what this is an example of? Hint: I wrote about this decision-making bias as recently as last month.

Functional Fixedness.

Josh Brown, the person I mentioned earlier, uses Pinterest to bookmark “amazing charts.” These financial charts, in a way, are breaking through that bias of functional fixedness. By using Pinterest to showcase financial charts, Brown found a way to use Pinterest that was a little out of the ordinary.

There are probably dozens of examples of these in your daily lives. On your commute this morning/afternoon (or the next time you head to work), I want you to take a wider perspective and see if you can notice anyone using something in a way that you hadn’t considered. Maybe someone’s using a skateboard as a “wagon” as they’ve tied a string to truck (where the wheels are) and is letting someone pull them down the street. Maybe by watching them participate in what some may consider a dangerous activity, it gives you that flash of an idea you’ve been looking for on a problem you’ve been having. Lateral thinking begets lateral thinking.

How Do We Free Magneto From the Pentagon: A Lesson in Functional Fixedness

I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to see the new X-Men movie — I rather liked it. There was a scene in the movie that presents a wonderful example of functional fixedness, depending upon your familiarity with the story. Before moving on, I should remind you of the meaning of functional fixedness. Essentially, it’s the idea that, sometimes, we might have a hard time seeing the potential utility of an object. For example, if you need to push nail back into a piece of wood, but you don’t have a hammer around, it might take you more than a few minutes to think of using your shoe. The functional fixedness lies in one’s lack of ability to see the shoe as a potential hammer-like object. The ‘function’ of the shoe is ‘fixed’ on being a shoe.

Alright, now that we’ve reviewed functional fixedness, let’s look at the example from the recent X-Men movie, Days of Future Past. Before continuing, I should say…

(minor spoiler alert)

Near the beginning of the movie, a couple of the X-Men are trying to free another X-Men from a holding cell in the basement of the Pentagon. As the person being held in this cell is Magneto and has the ability to create/control magnetic fields, jailing him with metal is a bad idea. So, he’s being held in a glass encasing. The X-Men trying to free Magneto make it into the basement of the Pentagon and the one person who is meant to free Magneto from the cell is Quicksilver. Earlier scenes from this movie show us that he has the ability to move extremely fast. In fact, he moves so fast that his ability could be mistaken for teleportation.

With Quicksilver standing on top of the glass enclosure, those who weren’t familiar with the X-Men comics may have wondered just how this person with ‘superhuman speed’ was going to free Magneto. This is our example of functional fixedness.

If, when you were watching this scene, you thought to yourself, “Quicksilver won’t be able to free Magneto with his superpower because he can just move quickly, and there’s no door for him to get in,” you’d be locked in functional fixedness.

A few moments later, the answer is revealed: Quicksilver has superhuman speed, so he can use his power to shatter the glass and Magneto is freed.

Note: I didn’t mention this initially, but Quicksilver is able to break the glass because he is able to move his hands so quickly such that he can create a resonance that breaks the glass. For real-life example of this in action, watch this wine glass.

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: