Naga Chokkanathan

Why Not? — Avoid Functional Fixedness

Posted on: October 8, 2010

You are in an empty room. All four sides, there are corkboard walls. Your mission is to fix a candle in one of those walls, so that its melt wax won’t drip on the floor.*

To complete this challenge, you are given one candle, a few matchsticks and a box of tacks. The room has no tables or paper or other objects (Its empty, remember?) What will you do?

Most people attempt this problem with a direct approach. Some try to melt the candle a bit, and use this wax to stick the candle on the wall. Few try using two or three tacks or match sticks to make the candle ‘stand’ on the wall. Unfortunately none of these methods work. Due to Mr. Gravity, sooner or later the melt wax will hit the floor with a 100% probability.

So, what’s the solution?

Simple. Stop fixing any functions to the objects you are given. Now you will get the solution immediately.

For example, instead of giving you a box full of tacks, Let us say they give you an empty box and then a bunch of tacks separately. Now you will immediately think of fixing the candle inside the box, and then tacking the box in the wall. Problem solved!


(Image Courtesy:

What’s going on here? Why didn’t we think of this solution in the first place?

When the box is given with its tacks, we simply assume the box as a container. So we don’t even think it can be used as part of the solution. This is called Functional Fixedness or Bias, and it seriously affects our creativity / problem solving capability.

How can we cure this blindness?

There are many scientific ways for avoiding functional fixedness. But the most popular solution is, having fun!

Yes. Many researches have proved that people who watch a funny movie or cartoon clip before attempting this challenge solve it easily than others. They don’t attach any conventional functions to the objects they see and literally think ‘inside the box’!

* This test was created by Psychologist Karl Duncker



N. Chokkan

08 10 2010


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