Definition: The inability to perceive a new use for an object associated with a different purpose; a form of mental set.

Quite Simply

  • Only using something that you are used to using in order to solve a certain problem, rather than using a different device that could also solve the problem.
  • Limiting a familiar object to its traditional function and being closed off to other, new functions
  • Not being able to use an object for a task other than its intentional use.
  • An inability to be McGyver
  • The inability to be creative with objects.

Examples of Functional Fixedness

  • When you want to tighten a screw you think you need a screwdriver, but really you could use a coin.
  • People always look for tissues when they have a stuffy nose, but a napkin or toilet paper would work just as well.
  • When you're on the phone and someone is telling you to write down a phone number, you immediately look around for a pen and forget that you could use the highlighter that is on the table.
  • Looking around for a vase and not thinking about using a cup or a bucket.
  • You look for a flashlight and forget that you can use your phone as one instead.
  • Instead of using a mirror to fix your make-up, you could use the camera on the iPhone or iPod.
  • Your back itches and all you have is a ruler, and you don't scratch your back.
  • You don't realize that you can use an old book to place under an uneven table leg to make it straight.
  • When you need to reach something high in the cabinet, you cant use a chair because you think it is only used for the purpose of sitting down

Additional Resources


A box, gimlet, and paperclip were given to a large group of people, much like Duncker's experiment. The test group was put under very specific testing conditions, and all of them found very similar ways to get out with the three materials, regardless of what the testing conditions were.