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When you have used a particular tool, item, or object for one sole purpose again and again, your brain can sometimes associate it with only that use. This concept is called functional fixedness.

Functional fixedness isn’t always a bad thing. But it can disrupt relationships, and even careers, if it keeps you from thinking outside of your own experiences.

Learn how to recognize functional fixedness, how it’s related to mental sets, and how you can prevent functional fixedness from disrupting your life.

Functional fixedness is what’s called a cognitive bias. This means that your brain is used to thinking of a particular thing in a specific way, which limits your ability to think of it in a new or innovative way.

Functional fixedness is deeply ingrained in your brain — so much so that it can show up on an imaging test.

A 2018 study found that the frontal and temporoparietal regions of your brain are highly active, lighting up on an electroencephalogram (EEG), when faced with creative problem-solving situations. When study participants were asked to solve a problem using an item they had not been told how to use, they demonstrated more activity in the creative centers of the brain than those who had been instructed about how the object is generally used.

This finding indicates that preconceived ideas — functional fixedness — can reduce creative problem-solving.

Functional fixedness is kind of a mental shortcut that helps you reduce how much you have to think in order to accomplish certain tasks. But functional fixedness can also make you less creative and more fixated on proven solutions rather than thinking about other, possibly more creative or useful solutions.

For example, you may think that you can only use a pencil to write on paper. This is good because you don’t have to repeatedly decide on the best erasable writing utensil.

But a pencil is long and thin, so you might also use it to help straighten and support plants in your garden, so they grow taller without falling over.

Functional fixedness can also make you more efficient at repetitive work.

If you’re a coder, for example, being able to glance at chunks of code that accomplish certain tasks, and plug them in quickly into a software function, can help you do your job.

But that chunk of code may have other uses that you might never imagine, even when other colleagues are using it that way. In this case, functional fixedness could keep you from growing your expertise and advancing in your career.

Functional fixedness can also affect your relationships. When one individual sees another person in only one, specifically defined role, that can make it hard to approach situations that challenge this prescribed role.

Functional fixedness can limit creative thinking and make it difficult to solve problems in a relationship. It may even limit a person’s ability to feel empathy for another person who does not behave in a way that is consistent with their preconceived ideas of them.

Let’s take an example of a couple that has been together for many years. During most of those years, one spouse worked longer hours, and the other, who arrived home from work earlier, made dinner.

Recently, the spouse who worked longer hours was laid off. For the past few days, the other spouse, who still commutes to a full-time job, arrives home as usual, and the laid-off spouse meets them at the door with the same question, “What are you cooking for dinner? I’m hungry.” The spouse still working outside the home becomes increasingly frustrated, and the couple begins to have daily arguments.

For the now-home spouse, it’s simply the other spouse’s job to make dinner, while the still-working spouse wonders why the spouse at home isn’t making dinner now that they are home.

The first spouse is exhibiting a form of functional fixedness, seeing making dinner as a defining characteristic of the other spouse. The second spouse may be struggling with functional fixedness, too — seeing the task “making dinner” as the job of whoever is home to make it.

In order to resolve the conflict, the spouses will need to begin seeing the other’s role and duties in the context of their new situation. They will need to challenge their functional fixedness surrounding dinner before they can begin to think of creative solutions.

Here are some small, everyday ideas you can use to help prevent functional fixedness.

Break down a problem into basic elements

Think about the hammer and nail scenario.

The ultimate goal isn’t just to get a nail into some wood. What you really need to accomplish is getting a long, sharp, metal object into a piece of wood to hold it together.

What else can be done to accomplish this?

Now, apply this to other problems you encounter.

Look to other areas of expertise

Sometimes, others who have different backgrounds or experiences come up with different uses for the same objects or different solutions to the same problems.

The classic example is someone with long hair using a pencil or pen as a substitute for a hair tie. If you’ve never had long hair, you may never have come up with this idea.

More broadly, people in certain industries or academic fields sometimes get inspiration from people who may have a different angle on the same idea.

For example, an artificial intelligence expert programs a self-driving car to help people carpool to work and reduce the number of cars on the road. His goal is to decrease traffic so that air quality improves.

A social worker discovers the artificial intelligence expert’s self-driving cars, and begins to use this technology to help clients with disabilities — or those who don’t have access to public transportation — get to medical appointments.

Try “design thinking”

This popular buzz phrase refers to thinking about an object’s design in terms of how the object meets the needs of its user — stepping into the shoes of someone who might use the object.

Here’s a general outline of the design thinking process you can use in terms of a personal relationship:

  1. Empathize with your partner and their specific problem.
  2. Define their needs, their perceived obstacles, and what insights you gain from thinking about this.
  3. Envision various solutions to the problems (this is the famous “sticky notes on a whiteboard” activity).
  4. Prototype solutions that may work for you both.
  5. Test solutions to see if they satisfy both your and your partner’s needs.

Functional fixedness is not always a problem. In fact, it can help you accomplish certain tasks without starting from scratch every time. But functional fixedness can also have negative effects on your personal and professional life.

Try to identify when this cognitive bias has positive and negative effects on your happiness or success, especially in your relationships.

Practice thinking creatively every day, even on small conflicts, and you may be able to create new ways of thinking about your relationships that can lead to better problem-solving.