Ready To Finally, Really Think Outside The Box? First, Look Inside

When you think outside the box, you see the same object in a new context. Which, as a classic psych experiment shows, is super hard to do. Here’s how.

Ready To Finally, Really Think Outside The Box? First, Look Inside
[Image: Flickr user Cristian Bortes]

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, solved

Thinking inside, outside, and beside the box

The above experiment is a famous one within the history of psychology–it shows up all over the place in innovation-land, including in Daniel Pink’s Drive. The experiment was invented in 1945 by the German-born psychologist Karl Duncker. He was of the Gestalt school of psychology, which emphasizes holistic thinking about thinking. To Duncker, the Candle Problem, as it’s come to be known, illustrates functional 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. Fascinatingly, Duncker did follow-up experiments where the box was presented beside the other objects–and people used it as a shelf much more readily.

We feel clever (and perhaps like MacGyver) when overcome functional fixedness: if you’ve used a key to open a package or a dime to unscrew a screw, you’ve done the same. When done at a large scale, breaking the functional fixedness bias can mean major innovation: if you were the first company to embrace the fact that a phone could have functions beyond making calls, you’d feel pretty smart right now.


But functional fixedness isn’t always awful. As About’s Kendra Cherry observes:

imagine that someone has asked you to open a toolbox and find a tool that can be used to loosen a screw. It would take a tremendous amount of time if you had to analyze every item in the box to determine how effective it might be at performing the task. Instead, you are able to quickly grab a screwdriver, the most obvious item for loosening a screw.

But if you only see the obvious solution, maybe it’s you who needs a screw loosened.

Hat tip: io9

Can you think of any products that shift your functional fixedness? Let us know in the comments.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.