Functional Fixedness

Functional fixedness is a limitation in perception, often involved with difficulty switching sets.

When solving problems, people generally try to focus on the best strategy to reach their goal. Sometimes problems appear more difficult to solve than they really are because the available solutions are not obvious. That is, humans form limiting mental sets, or ways of viewing potential solutions, that may actually hinder progress.

When people develop functional fixedness, they recognize tools only for their obvious function. An object is regarded as having only one fixed function. The problem-solver cannot alter his mental set to see that the tool may have multiple uses.

A common theatrical situation involves a group of people who want to enter a locked room when they have no key. The solution comes when somebody thinks of inserting a credit card between the door and the doorjamb, releasing the lock. In real life, if someone needs to get into a locked room, a useful implement might be present that would help solve the problem. If a person is cognitively “stuck” in functional fixedness, he may not recognize that the implement readily available in his immediate environment will help.

In many cases, people are quite adept at avoiding functional fixedness and can switch sets easily, using a nail clipper as a screwdriver or the heel of a shoe as a nutcracker.

See also Cognition ; Intelligence ; Learning ; Logical thinking .



Coulter, Jeff, and W. W. Sharrock. Brain, Mind, and Human Behavior in Contemporary Cognitive Science: Critical Assessments of the Philosophy of Psychology. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

Domjan, Michael P. The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2009.

Eberhard, John P. Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. The Cognitive Neurosciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

Groome, David. An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology Processes and Disorders. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor & Francis, 2013.

Haselgrove, Mark, and Lee Hogarth. Clinical Applications ofLearning Theory. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2012.

Klein, Stephen B. Learning: Principles and Applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Laureys, Steven, and Giulio Tononi. The Neurology of Consciousness: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropathology. Amsterdam: Academic, 2009.

National Research Council. Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2008.

Pomerantz, James R. Topics in Integrative Neuroscience: From Cells to Cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Raedt, Luc de. Logical and Relational Learning. Berlin: Springer, 2008.

Schulkin, Jay. Cognitive Adaptation: A Pragmatist Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Squire, Larry R. Fundamental Neuroscience. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2013.