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, I 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.”