A few days ago the heating element in our oven burned out for the second time in two years. I ordered a new one online, but it won’t get here until next week. In the meantime, we’re preparing food with stovetop burners and microwave. Like many things, an oven is something that you don’t realized how often you use it, until you can’t. We had planned to make a corn casserole Sunday, but the broken oven prevented it. The next day my wife Diane suggested that we get out our electric griddle and make Johnnie cakes instead.
This was a good example of lateral thinking. Using the cornmeal to make Johnny cakes on the griddle solved our broken oven problem. I had been stuck on the notion that we had to have an oven in order to bake something. Researchers who study creativity call this “functional fixedness.” This is a cognitive bias that only allows a person to use an object or do something in the traditional way. The concept originated in the Gestalt psychology movement. These Gestalt psychologists studied the way people perceived and processed information. They were especially interested in things like intuition, problem solving, and creativity. One prominent Gestalt psychologist, Karl Duncker, said that functional fixedness was a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.”
Functional fixedness is a universal human trait. Before the age of 7 years, however, children typically show little sign of it. Objects are used rather indiscriminately for a wide range of purposes. Around age 7, however, children begin to realize the intended purpose of objects and begin treating them as something unique. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called this the “stage of concrete operations.” He saw it as a turning point in the child’s development, marking the beginning of logical and conventional thought. Creativity requires a person to transcend such ingrained conventional thinking. Breaking these patterns of functional fixedness is typically what is meant by “thinking outside of the box.”
Last week in Portland, federal agents were unleashing a barrage of tear gas on the “Wall of Moms” demonstrators, when suddenly a group of men wearing orange shirts appeared carrying leaf blowers. They started up their leaf blowers and quickly dispersed the cloud of tear gas. Whoever devised this plan did not suffer from functional fixedness and was able to perceive that the landscaping tool could do more than just blow away leaves and grass clippings. In fact, the method was so effective that soon the federal agents had blowers of their own, leading to a “battle of the blowers.”
Finding new and unique uses for objects has long been considered a mark of creative genius. In the 1960s, Washington University physicist Alexander Calandra wrote a famous essay in which he described how a colleague, who taught a physics class, asked him to judge an answer that a student gave to the test question, “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.” The instructor expected that students would say that they would measure the atmospheric pressure at the bottom and the top of the building and use the difference to calculate the height.
Most students gave this answer. One, however, said, “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.” Calandra conceded that the answer was correct, but since the test was intended to measure competence in physics, the answer needed to pertain to the subject matter. So the student was asked if he could devise another answer that involved physics.
He responded, “You could throw the barometer off the top of the building and use a stop watch to determine how long it took to reach the ground and then use this value to calculate the height of the building. At this point the instructor gave up and gave the student credit for his answer. The student also had several other “correct” answers, none of which involved measuring atmospheric pressure. My favorite was, “Locate a janitor who has worked in the building for years and tell him: ‘I will give you this extremely nice barometer if you tell me the height of this building.’”
Sometimes there is a fine line between being creative and just being a smart-aleck. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, for example, considered his colleague Plato a pompous and pretentious snob. When Plato defined man as being “a two-footed, featherless animal,” Diogenes plucked a chicken and took it to Plato’s Academy and said, “Here’s Plato’s man.”
Arthur Koestler, author of “The Act of Creation,” believed that creative thought occurred when a person perceived a situation or idea from two consistent, but incompatible frames of reference. Koestler called this the “Bisociative Act.” Jokes and especially puns can illustrate this phenomena. The listener is led to expect a certain outcome, but the punchline suddenly shifts to a different and unexpected frame of reference to comic effect. The structure of a joke is essentially a “bait-and-switch,” which defies expectations.
The main reason why it is so difficult to come up with a truly creative idea is because every thought, opinion or notion we hold is already connected to other concepts. Koestler calls these conventional connections, associations, but all of them typically reside on the same plane of thought. Bisociations are special connections between things residing in different planes of thought.
Steve Jobs once said that ultimately “creativity is connecting things.” Connecting unusual things, or connecting common things in an unusual way, is how people can overcome their “functional fixedness” and become more creative or hilarious.