Ready to Finally, Really Think Outside the Box? First, Look Inside
“Let’s do a quick experiment: You’re sitting at a table in a psychology lab. A researcher hands you a small box full of stuff: matches, tacks, and a candle. Your job, he says, is to stick the candle to the wall beside you, but not allow the wax to drip down onto your table and make a mess. As you take the objects out of the box, you think to yourself, What do I do?
Many people try to tack the candle to the wall–why not? But that doesn’t quite work, since you still have that dripping to contend with. Alternatively, you could melt the candle a bit, smear some wax on the wall, and attempt to stick the candle to the wall that way–but that still doesn’t work because, again, you’re going to get wax all over the place. So what’s the solution?
Remember the box that all the stuff came in? Let’s make use of it. While when we received the box, it was functioning as a container, that’s not the only function it can have; rather, we can use the same box in a novel way–as a shelf to be tacked to the wall, so the candle may stand securely and burn majestically, with nary a drip of wax to fall below. …
… the Candle Problem, as it’s come to be known, illustratesfunctional fixedness. As io9 writer Esther Inglis-Arkell notes:
Functional fixedness … was a person’s inability to see an object as itself, free of the meaning it has in the greater scheme of things.
What the Candle Problem illuminates is that it’s quite difficult to free an object from the context within which we receive it: since the box came to us holding the matches, candle, and tacks, we think of it only as a container.”