The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

The experiment that led to the concept of "Thinking Outside the Box"

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

"Thinking outside the box," has become the annoying phrase we hear in commercials and bad business meetings. It stems from an actual psychological concept called functional fixedness. Funnily enough, the classic experiment to demonstrate functional fixedness required people to think inside the box.

If you've spent more than an hour watching television in the last decade, you've heard the phrase "think outside the box." Most likely you've heard it while watching electronic gadgets spin against a white background to upbeat music. "Think outside the box," is now one of those anemic phrases that has been sucked dry of its meaning and vitality. It has come to mean, "We're special and if you buy our products you can be special, too!" Today we can't possible think back to a time when the phrase wasn't annoying, but it wasn't always meaningless. It began as a way of observing how hard, but necessary, it is to break away from established ways of thinking about things.


Gestalt Psychology

That meaning has deep psychological roots. The concept of being trained to a way of thinking so thoroughly that it cuts off the ability to see obvious alternatives has inspired dozens of different experiments. The first experiment was conducted in 1945 by Karl Duncker. Duncker was a member of the Gestalt school of psychology. Their philosophy was that the whole of a brain was preeminent over its individual parts. Meaning was to be found in the interaction of those parts rather than the workings of the individual parts themselves. This philosophy did not just encompass the brain itself, but the workings of the brain. For example, you see and identify a rose as a whole, from the placement and interaction of its shapes, before you take in any details about this individual rose's appearance. A big part of learning to sketch is retraining the brain to "see" how an object actually looks, instead of lazily taking the brain's impression of it as a general concept.


Duncker's experiment lead to a concept, functional fixedness, that obligingly fit with his philosophy of psychology. Functional fixedness, according to Duncker, was a person's inability to see an object as itself, free of the meaning it has in the greater scheme of things. To prove that people would fixate on their traditional idea of an object-as-concept, rather than the many possible uses of the object, he came up with the candle box experiment.

The Candle Box

He presented volunteer subjects with a box containing a candle, some matches, and some thumb tacks. The subjects were asked to attach the candle to the wall. Many tried tacking the candle directly to the wall, but the tacks were generally too short for the purpose. Others broke out the matches and lit the candle, melting it so that the wax dripped onto the wall, and attempted to stick the candle on that way. Still no luck. Relatively few people, Duncker found, put the candle in the box and tacked the box to the wall. Subjects saw the box not as a specific tool or a shape, but as a function of its place in the overall experiment. They couldn't "think outside the box," which in this case involved thinking inside the box. (For the record, looking at the experiment, I would probably have stuck a tack through the candle wick and tacked the candle to the wall that way.)

Functional fixedness, and its limits and variations, has become the inspiration for a lot of experiments that have probably sent their subjects away feeling like dumbasses. It took only a few years to establish that, if the candle, matches, and thumb tacks came with the box, not in the box, people were a lot more likely to use the box "correctly." Psychologists have studied how functional fixedness affects how people see and use more sophisticated technology. They've traveled to groups of people that don't use certain technologies to see if they have the same concept of functional fixedness that people who grew up with those technologies do. The quest to find that single point at which we unconsciously cut off useful thinking continues to this day.


So next time you hear the phrase, "think outside the box," remember that it's not just a way to feel special and smart. Then feel special and smart.

Via Psychological Science.